As SAP’s first-ever chief sustainability officer, Peter Graf was prepared to lay out the business case for sustainability to stakeholders and customers of every kind. But he had to make the case to SAP’s own board of directors first.
For more than a decade, Peter Graf, a computer scientist by training (Ph.D. in artificial intelligence), has focused on marketing at SAP, the business management software company. Graf worked on product and content marketing, was in charge of product strategy and coinvented NetWeaver, a technology platform that aligns information technology with business requirements. Since March 2009, though, Graf has had a new role: chief sustainability officer for the company. He now leads a global team that oversees all sustainability-related initiatives, from the creation of solutions that enable sustainable business processes for SAP customers to SAP’s own sustainability operations, including key social, economic and environmental programs. Unsurprisingly, Graf is not shy about his view of sustainability’s future in organizations. His public remarks include claims that sustainability will occasion “the biggest transformation in business since the invention of the Internet,” and that for sustainability-adopting companies “there is money to be made. There is money to be saved.” But Graf says his first task as an inaugural CSO was one of perception. “I had to be very careful not to come across as a marketing show,” he says. “That means when we talk externally, the initial conversation is all about SAP as an exemplar, SAP as a role model. What SAP does internally, what our carbon targets are. Because we need credibility to say, ‘We are really doing this sustainability stuff ourselves.’ It works. And then we can say, ‘By the way, we’re using our own system to do it.’ And then the last step can be, ‘And you can buy those systems, too.’” Graf’s second, and bigger, task was to grapple with internal corporate strategy. He had to make the business case for sustainability-driven actions – and the case for trying to build SAP into a sustainability role model – to SAP’s own board of directors. Graf spoke with Michael S. Hopkins, editor-in-chief of MIT Sloan Management Review, about how he made the sustainability case internally, what the payoffs have been and how SAP customers have – and haven’t – responded. Take us back a couple years to before SAP had even created such a thing as a chief sustainability officer.