Every year on June 5, millions across the globe celebrate World Environment Day. It is the United Nations’ flagship day for promoting worldwide awareness and action for the environment.
While it certainly is not enough to focus on the environment just one day a year — or maybe three days if you add Earth Day and Earth Overshoot Day — it is a good opportunity to rally governments, cities, businesses, other organizations, and citizens alike to remember that this planet is our joint home that we need to take care of, for our own sake as well as that of future generations.
All of us have a role to play in this. Businesses like SAP, however, have a unique part due to their reach and power to make a positive impact. We have the responsibility to stand for a higher purpose that goes beyond economic success. For SAP, this higher purpose is to help the world run better and improve people’s lives. Together with our customers and numerous other organizations, we are working to bring this vision and purpose to life year-round and to jointly address the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
One of these global goals seems particularly relevant this World Environment Day: Goal #12, Responsible Consumption and Production. This goal is critical to #BeatPlasticPollution, the theme of this year’s World Environment Day.
If we want to solve the underlying root causes for plastic pollution in the mid- and long-term, we need to fundamentally change the way produce and consume. It is not just about responsible sourcing or about recycling; it’s about thinking of the full product lifecycle, from design to end of life, as I underlined a few weeks ago around Earth Day. With a shift toward a true circular economy, we could move toward products that keep plastic within the cycle, foreseeing its recycling and reuse from the start, as well as gradually reduce single use plastic, and step-by-step develop new, alternative, or complementary and more sustainable materials.
SAP has been exploring potential opportunities together with its customers at the recent “Plastics Challenge,” to drive such purpose-driven innovation — a journey started but still with some way to go. Along the way, the aim is not only to mitigate plastic pollution and to extract the biggest value from a material mainly made from a finite virgin resource, but also to meet the increasingly strict regulatory environment, for example, banning single-use plastics in the EU.
For many companies like SAP it starts with leading by example through our own business practices. SAP has have established a sustainable, end-to-end life-cycle management for our IT equipment, encompassing sustainable procurement practices, energy efficient operations, and IT re-use and recycling. However, the scale comes from enabling a base of more than 388,000 customers through our technology and solutions.
On an individual level, it might not always seem so simple to find the strongest lever to make a difference. I encourage every leader to take the time and have that conversation with employees. It is key to helping them understand what their contribution can be and where they should focus to have the biggest impact. This increases employee engagement. However, one size does not fit all.
During a recent dialogue I had with SAP employees, I experienced again how much it means to most to be able to do more at work beyond earning profit. From our last employee survey I know that 93 percent say it is important that SAP pursues sustainability, but in the face-to-face interaction, I could sense directly how strongly colleagues want their employer and themselves to be sustainable and responsible.
At the beginning of the session, the ideas and questions that participants raised were all around what actions each could generically take in the context of their daily work, such as how to commute, how to reduce and segregate waste in the office, how to print less, etc. The expectation was further voiced that single-use plastic would be eliminated not only at our headquarters and other major locations, but across all SAP sites, which indeed our facilities teams are now working on.
After a while, the discussion evolved toward how individual employees could also play a part in the content of their work, such as by embedding sustainability features into our software solutions and services, or into engaging with customers around the adoption of sustainable business practices. It was highly rewarding to see when, at the end, it clicked with one colleague working in industry development with retail customers. She got very excited when together we explored how the retail market is transforming and the need to adjust to ever-higher consumer expectations is pushing retail companies to differentiate themselves by increasingly prioritizing sustainability and sustainable assortments. The examples of Walmart, Lidl, and others made it tangible for this employee and laid out an entirely new space for her to make a contribution that would scale far beyond the comparatively low footprint she personally had. She had not thought about it that way before, but she took away new inspiration where to focus in order to help the world run better and improve people’s lives.
And I was reminded of how important it is to never cease engaging with people inside and outside around what it takes to safeguard our environment and make every day a little World Environment Day.
Daniel Schmid is chief sustainability officer at SAP.