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Unilever chief urges investors to pressure companies on ESG issues

Unilever plc Chief Executive Paul Polman exhorted corporate executives to commit to sustainable practices and institutional investors to hold companies accountable.

"Why don’t we ask companies to take moral leadership?" the head of the $148.6 billion consumer goods company asked at the CEO Investor Forum in New York on Feb. 26.

In the U.S., commitment to sustainability principles – environmental, social and governance goals – has picked up, but not enough, he said.

"We have to change our consumption patterns, have to grow our economies to be more inclusive and do it all when our global governance is failing us," he said.

Addressing the argument that shareholder returns are especially important for retirees, Polman said: "While you have to match your pension liabilities, you also have to ensure that people who retire can retire to a world they can live in."

Polman, who has said he will leave as Unilever CEO sometime after this year, has been a strong advocate for companies to pursue long-term investor value, as opposed to focusing on short-term returns.

That stance was tested last year when Kraft Heinz Co. mounted a $143 billion takeover bid for Unilever. The bid was swiftly rejected, but Unilever embarked on an assessment of its businesses, eventually selling its spreads business to KKR & Co. for $8.1 billion.

Polman also noted the company's increased special dividend, from the usual 8% to 12%, and a $5 billion share buyback — moves he considered "practical compromises."

Unilever has also been examining its corporate structure. It is headquartered in the Netherlands and the U.K. and executives have said they will make a decision soon on the location of its main base.