What's Holding Back Corporate Sustainability Efforts?

SAP, the business-intelligence software giant, has thrown its weight behind sustainability in a big way in the last few years, which you know if you've been reading these pages for any length of time.

But how strong a grasp have SAP's customers got on green issues? To what extent do they factor efficiency and emissions, among many other concerns, into daily operations?

Before attending SAP's massive annual conference, Sapphire Now, I would have guessed "not much." But the answer actually seems to be "both more and less than you'd think."

I'll explain: There were plenty of deep sessions on sustainability at Sapphire Now -- but they were almost never couched in green language. Instead, many of the companies I met with have taken to heart SAP's new mantra of "making the world run better" -- where better in this case means more efficiency, and which in turn means less waste, fewer emissions; leaner, greener companies.

Because there is still an inconceivably long way to go to get every company -- or even a majority of companies -- on the sustainability train, I was heartened by both the presence of and content presented during one of the panel discussions explicitly about sustainability. During the first afternoon of Sapphire Now, SAP convened thought leaders from industry, government and NGOs to take the pulse of corporate sustainability and offer prescriptions and predictions for progress in a panel called "What Does a Sustainable Company Look Like in 2015?" [Disclosure: SAP paid for my travel to the event in Orlando.]

Nigel Topping, the chief innovation officer for the Carbon Disclosure Project, said that on the investor front, pressure is not only growing, but shareholders are burrowing in to demand more.

"This year we're working with 550 investors, representing $71 trillion in assets -- that's trillion dollars, quite a lot -- and we've started to see investors getting more demanding," Topping told the audience at the panel. "They're not just saying 'please be more transparent,' but saying we know there are savings to be had from energy efficiency, and you need to be taking those savings or explaining why you're not. We expect you to reduce, not just to disclose.'"

Although the relentless pressure for companies to disclose has been the topic of a lot of coverage recently -- see here, here and here for a few recent examples -- the panelists presented a compelling case for asking or requiring more from companies they own or do business with.

"The vast majorities of companies around the world still haven't started," Peter Graf, SAP's Chief Sustainability Officer, said. "We need to get everyone on the first rung of the ladder, whether it's by regulation, by procurement or by executive order.:

Next page: To regulate, or not to regulate?