Unilever is sceptical on return to growth after its sales slide

Unilever's chief executive, Paul Polman, poured cold water on optimism about a return to economic growth in Europe and the US yesterday, reporting weak sales for the household goods giant across the developed world.

The Dutchman had harsh words for European leaders holding back on reform of their economies, saying: "We haven't moved forward other than a lot of talk. To what crisis does it have to come before we change?"

Despite being seen as one of the best operators in the global consumer goods market, Unilever, which makes Dove soap and Pot Noodle, said sales in developed markets fell 1.3 per cent in the second quarter of the year.

The company said there was "little sign of any recovery in North America or Europe".

Meanwhile, emerging markets expansion slowed to 10.3 per cent from 10.4 per cent in the previous quarter. Mr Polman told CNBC: "There are some signs that the measures taken in southern Europe, especially Spain, have plateaued out a decline, but we don't see that in too many other countries."

He said youth unemployment on the Continent was the biggest worry for consumer businesses like his. "Europe will have a tough ride in the next 10 years and it needs an honest conversation with the citizens of Europe that is currently absent."

The emerging markets growth was still enough to bring up underlying sales growth globally to 5 per cent in the quarter, just below City expectations. The shares fell 42p, or 1.55 per cent, to 2,676p.

Mr Polman's focus on driving up margins paid off, with pre-tax profits for the first half of the year up 14 per cent to €3.6bn (£3.1bn) on flat group turnover of €25.5bn.

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