About the author
Former CEO, Unilever
Paul Polman has been CEO of Unilever since January 2009. Under his leadership, the company has a ambitious vision to decouple its growth from its overall environmental footprint and increase its positive social impact through the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.
Modern life is built on trust. No society can thrive without it – and in purely business terms, trust is our most valuable asset, the basis of our prosperity.
What’s more, trust is the key to unlocking the sort of progress we all want to see – addressing climate change, tackling poverty and hunger, achieving gender equality. These ambitions, embodied in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), will only be achieved by people working together in new, deeply collaborative ways. That kind of co-operation depends on the highest levels of trust.
But, all over the world, trust is under threat. Polls consistently show trust in many institutions is at an all-time low – and it is hardly surprising. Why should people trust a system that leaves so many of them behind?
So, what can business do? I believe it should take the lead in building, protecting and repaying trust. That’s a huge task – and I don’t think Unilever, or any other individual business, has all the answers. But I do think a good place to start is a recognition of what trust is, and why it matters to us.
€100bn The value of Unilever’s trust and reputation
What do we mean when we talk about trust?
Trust is our most important value driver. Unilever’s current market capitalisation is €130 billion – but our asset value is only €30 billion. The balance is made up by trust, or reputation – an extraordinarily valuable asset, built by generations of Unilever people, by our values and by great products.
It makes business sense to protect and nurture your most valuable assets. In the case of trust, how do we do that?
There is a temptation to focus on things that businesses often think of as under their direct control – products, service, delivery.
Improving all these things is critically important, of course – you cannot be trusted if you do not deliver what you promise. But they are not enough on their own.
When people talk about trustworthiness, they mean much more: values, fairness, equality, purpose. They expect business to look outwards, at its role in the world. They think about behaviour – and they take a long-term view of whether a business is ‘walking the talk’.
In a global climate of distrust, we have to work twice as hard to maintain the reputation we have earned. And then we have to work even harder, to seize the opportunities that building trust can bring. Paul Polman, CEO, Unilever
Building trust, creating opportunities
Unilever has always been a business founded on purpose – and in our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP), we set out our commitment to ensuring that business success should be long term, sustainable and not come at the expense of people or the planet.
This has contributed hugely to the fact that we have built up reserves of trust, reflected in surveys on trust and reputation such as GlobeScan’s annual Sustainability Leaders Survey, in which we’ve held top spot for the last seven years.
But reputation has a habit of arriving on foot and departing on horseback. In a global climate of distrust, we have to work twice as hard to maintain the reputation we have earned. And then, with others, we have to work even harder, to seize the opportunities that building trust can bring.
Transforming business to transform the world
Nurturing trust brings about direct opportunities for any business. Trust builds better relationships with consumers and suppliers, greater business resilience and more engaged employees. Recent research suggests, for example, that when people believe they are working for a trustworthy organisation, they will invest even more to exceed the company’s goals.
It is also about the wider opportunities. Achieving the trillions of dollars of growth that could be unlocked by the global sustainable development agenda will mean everyone – governments, agencies, business and NGOs – mobilising their collective will and resources on a basis of trust.
Business has a good starting point, as well as clear incentives. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, 75% of people say that they trust their own company. Two-thirds of respondents say they want CEOs to take the lead on policy change instead of waiting for governments, which in most countries now rank significantly below business in the trust rankings.
75% of respondents to the Edelman Trust Barometer say they trust the company they work for
Transparency: open with ourselves, open with others
So, how can businesses build on the trust people have in them to achieve both these commercial and developmental opportunities? The key is to stick to the values on which the business is founded and which binds the organisation together in common purpose. Openness and transparency – including sharing relevant data – will also play a huge part. We need to be open about not having all the answers. And we need to work harder to listen to, and act on, other people’s perspectives.
When we launched our USLP in 2010, for example, we set ourselves ambitious targets to achieve social and environmental impacts. Each year, we report on all of our commitments – and our 2017 progress is described here.
We’ve made enormous progress in many areas – but we’re open about the fact that we’ve made less progress in others. By being transparent about what we’ve learnt, we hope to help others who are on the same journey, and get the benefit of their perspective on ours. And since one of our biggest lessons is that progress depends on the kind of transformational change that can only be achieved through partnerships, we want those partnerships to be based on the strongest possible foundations: ones built on trust.
Taking the lead
By adopting a transparent, open approach, business has the opportunity – and responsibility – to lead by example.
Building trust strengthens an individual business. And by helping to achieve the SDGs and contributing to fairer societies, we have the chance to reverse the years of declining trust and build a better, more prosperous world. That’s a prize no business can afford to ignore.