Practices and policies that hurt the environment don't just threaten the planet. They can also seriously harm companies' reputations and profits if left unaddressed. Fortunately, activist investors have pushed for better environmental and sustainability practices at corporate annual meetings across the country this year -- and they're making major headway.

Last week, Ceres, which directs the $10 trillion Investor Network on Climate Risk and works with companies to address sustainability challenges, released an in-depth view of the environmental issues that have gained serious traction in shareholder meetings.

In 2011, shareholders filed a record 109 environmental and sustainability-related shareholder resolutions at 81 U.S. and Canadian companies. Here's what they won.

Fighting back on fracking
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a controversial method for obtaining natural gas; it involves shooting millions of gallons of chemical-laced water into rocks in wells. Critics say the practice can poison drinking water, or saturate it with flammable gas. New Jersey is already mulling a ban on the practice, despite its apparent lack of substantial natural gas deposits.

Investors filed nine fracking-related resolutions with energy companies, asking for plans and disclosure regarding water pollution, chemical use, and other topics. In some cases, votes came in remarkably high; 43.7% of Carrizo Oil & Gas shareholders approved such disclosure, while 49.5% voted for it at Energen (NYSE: EGN).

Furthermore, shareholder activists withdrew resolutions at companies like Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE: APC) and El Paso (NYSE: EP) after the companies agreed to increase their disclosures on the practice.

Water matters
Energy isn't the only industry facing sustainability troubles. It's easy to take water for granted, but the World Bank predicts that by 2025, 1.4 million people could suffer from scarce water supplies. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development sees an even scarier scenario: 47% of the world's population -- that's 3 billion people -- could find themselves scrambling for clean water.

To spur companies to get ahead of that looming problem, shareholder activists flooded related entities with resolutions related to water scarcity issues, with  heartening results.

Here in the U.S., power plants suck up 40% of freshwater supplies. Dominion (NYSE: D), Southern (NYSE: SO), and PPL (NYSE: PPL) all reacted favorably to shareholder requests. They have agreed to do a better job in reporting and disclosing information on water availability, as well as releasing plans to lessen the related risks.

A big change of heart
Ceres logged nearly two dozen requests for sustainability reports from activist investors this year. In this area, shareholders won particularly big at heavy construction concern Layne Christensen (Nasdaq: LAYN).

Last year, Walden Asset Management filed a resolution at Layne Christensen requesting sustainability reporting, which garnered a 60.3% vote. Although the company initially resisted the call for such a report, this year, it actually recommended that shareholders vote for Walden's refiled sustainability resolution, which has since won approval from 92.8% of the company's shareholders.

Stop disasters before they happen
Just as investors try to spot companies' opportunities for future profit growth, they can also try to suss out their most urgent risks. Pushing for better plans and smarter operations can help avert calamities before they strike.

In 2011, shareholders are increasingly embracing that sustainable spirit. Their increased resolve creates an improved climate for all investors' well-being, financial and otherwise.

Check back at Fool.com every Wednesday and Friday for Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.

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Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. For more on this and other topics, check back at Fool.com, or follow her on Twitter: @AlyceLomax. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.