The consumer product company, whose global brands include Dove, Omo, Knorr and Lipton, aims to halve the environmental footprint of the firm's products and source 100% of its agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020.
The firm's parallel aim is to double their business during the same period.
However, over the past ten years, Unilever has only managed to reach a 10% share of sustainable sourcing - making meeting the ambitions of its Sustainable Living Plan, published last month, seem impossible.
Asked by EurActiv whether he honestly believes the ambitious targets can be met, Polman said he felt "confident". Although the initiative is a "very complex thing," sustainability can be achieved by working with a broad business coalition and stakeholders as part of its complex supply chains.
Unilever is the world's biggest purchaser of palm oil - responsible for 17% of global agricultural sourcing - the use of which has been linked to the destruction of rainforests.
To achieve sustainable sourcing of this key ingredient - which is widely used in processed foods, soaps and detergents - the company has brought together manufacturers, retailers and consumer goods companies in a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
Polman hopes the initiative will help satisfy the global call for sustainably produced palm oil and "move the market forward together".
As for smaller groups of products, like vegetables, Polman said the idea was to increase its work with small farmers. The company is aiming to integrate 500,000 more smallholder farmers into its supply chain and help farmers improve their agricultural practices, he said.
Cost of greening business
Asked whether the company was ready to pay more for its sustainably produced raw materials and whether sustainable sourcing would affect the value of its business, Polman said the belief that sustainable farming is more expensive is "only a perception". If done well, it actually uses less fertiliser, doesn't involve deforestation and "often actually gives you a higher yield as well," he said.
To illustrate his point, Polman stressed that you only get two and a half tonnes per hectare of palm oil from deforested land, while sustainable farming yields can achieve up to ten tonnes per hectare.
He argued that the perception that sustainable sourcing costs more comes from the fact that "the initial sustainable products that came on the market were advertising things and charging more for them".
"We are saying a totally different thing - we are advocating integrating sustainability into innovation programmes and products as a way of doing business," Polman said.
Better, greener products and better performing products at lower costs are possible if pre-conceived notions of trade-offs between them are cast aside - "this is what we are really saying with this plan," he added.
Security of supply, company reputation
Asked whether the multinational's sustainability pledge and initiatives were a pre-emptive action or ahead-of-time response to potential future green taxation and heavy charges for natural resource use, Polman said his company was more concerned about finding secure supplies of various raw materials.
"If we don't create more sustainable sourcing then we will not have the source in the first place," he said.
Regarding Unilever's aim to double its business, Polman sees no conflict between the firm achieving its sustainability goals and growing at the same time.
He thinks that tackling sustainability challenges actually provides new opportunities for sustainable growth as it "creates preference for our brands, builds business with our retail customers, drives our innovation, grows our markets and, in many cases, generates cost savings".
Pour lire l'entretien dans son intégralité, veuillez cliquer ici.