Head of Sustainable Impact at HP Canada
Frances Edmonds is the Head of Sustainable Impact at HP Canada, where she is responsible for business development and oversees Corporate Social Responsibility programs nationally. With a focus on sustainable procurement, Frances is driving meaningful change cross-sector that supports a more circular and sustainable economic future for Canada. With more than 30 years of experience, Frances is recognized as one of Canada’s top sustainability professionals having received two Clean 50 awards and has led HP to become the most sustainable technology company in Canada.
Passionate about driving change through education, Frances has developed and implemented volunteer programs globally for HP. She sits on the board of Learning for a Sustainable Future and serves as a consultant for academic institutions on sustainability strategies. She also sits on the Sustainable Development Advisory Council for the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada as well as the Expert Panel on the Circular Economy in Canada as assembled by the Council of Canadian Academies.
As seen on stages including TEDx, Frances is both a guest lecturer and speaker on a wide range of topics including the circular economy. With a degree in Environmental Science from Bradford University (UK) and a post-graduate diploma in Occupational Health and Safety, Frances is also a Canadian Registered Safety Professional (CRSP).
Work and impact
How is sustainability/social impact integrated in your work?
It’s everything that I do because my job is Head of Sustainable Impact, which is the name of HP’s sustainability programs. We’ve been a social purpose-driven company for 80 years, and I have the luxury of working at the cutting edge of sustainability- namely, working to change the ecosystem of Canada’s capitalist economy to include sustainability into purchasing criteria. As there is no recipe on how to do that, I am experimenting as I go.
What are your past and current areas of focus in a few words?
I’ve been at HP for 22 years, and I spent the first half of my career building the ability to say that we’re Canada’s most sustainable technology company, and the second half is trying to create a competitive advantage out of that. Not just on behalf of HP, but so that more organizations in Canada will drive sustainability as a core business function. Today we have less than 50 Canadian companies that have set a science-based target for carbon reduction, and we are in the decade of climate action. This is a terrible indicator that our market economy is missing the signal that will drive a low carbon economy: namely sustainable or circular procurement.
I have a very unique job at HP in that it’s somewhat of an experimental job. We have lots of people who work within our supply chain who are doing the day-to-day work of meeting our aggressive goals like 75% product and packaging Circularity by 2030 and writing sustainability reports, and tracking how we’re doing against our goals. Due to that, I don’t have to focus on those tasks so I can spend my time at the front end, trying to figure out how we can do things differently. Differently in a way that will show an impact on the business and justify even more investment in sustainability and our goals.
How did you enter this space?
When I left high school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I hitchhiked around Europe and then came back to the UK and got the first job I could, which happened to be testing water quality in a lab. I could have kept going to night school to get a degree in chemistry, but I wasn’t particularly interested in that path. Instead, I decided to do a degree in environmental science because I am a scientist by background, with a goal of going back into water conservation and water quality because I could see from testing the water what land use disruption would do to water quality. However, when I graduated, I knew I didn’t want to work in a lab, I wanted a different kind of a job, and so I took the first job that vaguely appealed to me that I could get, and that was a Ministry of Labor inspector where I was tasked with enforcing health and safety legislation in workplaces. In that role, I was able to take my passion for the environment and build it into my job, which in the “olden days” was: “the solution to pollution is dilution.” That meant just pump it outside and don’t change what you’re doing. In that job, I would try and push for that not to be the case and instead for them to change those chemicals to something that’s safer so that you don’t have to put everybody in PPE to do their job. When I came to Canada, I worked in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries and then took a sideways move to work at HP. I had a friend who insisted that I apply for a job, and so I did. I had never worked anywhere for longer than five years because I figured that if they hadn’t figured it out in five years, they’re not going to change, or I should have done what I needed to get done. But at HP, because it’s such a large company that is involved in so many different niches within the sustainable impact space, you can keep changing your job. So, you don’t need to leave the company.
Did you always want to work in the impact space?
I didn’t always want to work in the impact space, but when I made the connection between water quality and land use disruption, I knew I wanted to help make a change to how things were done. Whether it’s treated water that you’re drinking or the river water that you’re discharging sewage into, you understand that there is no such thing as “away” from pollution. So, when you start to see those connections, and you go, Holy Moly, everything we do has an impact, and we should understand those impacts before we do something. Every single business decision that gets made has a sustainability impact. Every job has an opportunity for systems sustainability impact in it; you just have to see it, then you have to quantify it and do something about it. Given how young a science sustainability is, we may not actually be able to quantify it because we don’t have all the tools we need yet, but smart people like the people reading this are going to figure that out. The problem is, we have to do that simultaneously. We need to do things like drastically reducing carbon, improving diversity and human rights at the same time because we’ve left it so late. The important part is that every job has a sustainable tie. I haven’t found a job yet that I couldn’t see ideas for how to incorporate sustainability into it.
What are you most excited about that has been happening in your industry/field for the past few years?
I would say the thing that I am most excited about is the transition to access over ownership, which is a very key piece of the circular economy. It involves transitioning your business to be able to provide services. For example, if you want to be able to print something or use PC power, you don’t need to own a printer or a PC to do that. We’ve done life cycle assessments (LCA) to show the difference between owning a PC versus buying it as a service and on PC print and even home print; we have shown that the simple act of buying as a service produces reductions across all of the LCA categories. That was something which even we were surprised about. We expected most but not all. It does, however, make sense if you think about it because when you access it as a service, it means you’re able to give something like a PC a second life faster, and the longer you use a PC, the lower the carbon footprint. E.g. If you can extend the product life by two years, you decrease the average PC’s carbon footprint by 30%. It can solve a lot of business problems as well because it’s not just good for the circular economy. When we think about what 50-80 years of buying with “the tyranny of the lowest price” has done, it’s created these very long supply chains that are very fragile but that deliver absolutely the lowest price. The point that is missed is that they all deliver a ton of externalities that need to be accounted for. As an example, if you want the lowest price notebook, the cheapest way to do that is to take the 1000 components that you’d have in the average notebook and glue them into the notebook. That’s cheap and fast, but it makes it functionally non-repairable. So this built-in obsolescence piece comes with this push for the lowest price as opposed to the best value. I have customers who will argue cents on a $1,000 laptop because they want the lowest price even if it isn’t repairable or recyclable. They don’t care about those things because they will just buy another one if it breaks down. That lack of concern is because of the way our financial systems are set up and the metrics by which procurement is measured against. We have this mini “tragedy of the commons” happening within a business or an organization, and we’re not measuring all of the costs. If I tried to sell an energy-efficient device to a procurement department, they might not care because they aren’t the ones paying the electricity bill. They get measured on how much money they save today, and so they are not incentivized to buy the more energy-efficient device now for more money, even if the costs are lower in the long term. The vagaries of the way we measure performance, GDP being a perfect example. It is an example of the structural things that we have to start to change, and it is going to take all of us because sustainability is a team sport. No individual has the expertise to do it on their own; it’s about radical collaboration to figure out how we can do this differently.
Are there any misconceptions about your profession or industry?
Planned obsolescence is one, and a good example is looking at the home print business because people believe it’s cheaper to buy a new printer than it is to buy replacement cartridges. When you’re in a commoditized marketplace, like the home ink printing business, it’s a horrible business to be in because the consumer expects to be able to buy a printer with all the features for $49.99, and you can’t build one at that price. So you have to sell the product at a loss and hope that your customer is going to then go and buy what they perceive to be a high-priced cartridge to go in it. That then is a disincentive for them to use your product. So it’s a broken business model at the very best right? Instant Ink is an example of a services-based business model that tackles that issue head-on. For as low as $1.25 a month, you sign up for a printing service. The printer orders the cartridges when you need new ones, we can ship them to you in bigger cartridges, so less plastic to ink ratio and less packaging, and we can ship it with the recycling bag in the box, meaning we get more of them back and we can put them through our closed-loop recycling process. This makes it convenient and lower in cost for the customer. Awesome for the business because now you have that steady annuity stream which is important because businesses like steady-state; they don’t like unpredictability in anything. On top of that, the footprint reductions are really awesome. This is a great example of where you bring in an alternate business model, and it fixes multiple problems. This is the fastest-growing business-to-consumer play in the circular economy. We have over 10 million subscribers worldwide, which serves as an inspiration for our businesses to say, “we’ve transitioned this piece of our business to a services-based model; we should be able to do it in other lines of the business too.” Another interesting misconception is around things such as email taglines that say, “please consider the environment before printing this email.” If you ask the average person which has a higher carbon footprint, printing 20 pages or their morning latte, they’re going to say printing 20 pages. Right? But it’s way different. The latte is way more impactful. The idea is that if you are not printing, you are doing everything digitally. There’s this perception that all print is always bad and all digital is always good, but like everything, it depends. We have customers who say that they sent everybody home because of COVID and told them they couldn’t print anything. Do you think that’s really happening? No, it’s not. Obviously, younger people typically print less than people in my generation, but if I have to read a legal document, I want it in hardcopy because I get to carefully read it, and I miss things when I read things on the screen. It says please consider the environment before printing, storing or forwarding this email, but actually, what it should say is these are teeny tiny footprint issues. We need the big rock issue, which is, are you practicing sustainable procurement or have you set a net-zero carbon goal?
Life and aspirations
What does a typical workday look like for you? What’s your work-life balance like?
I deliberately make it, so I don’t have a typical workday because I get bored very easily. I’m always juggling multiple projects. I make myself very available to whoever might need my advice which means I get interrupted a lot. That’s the tradeoff, so you have to be able to deal with that. My work-life balance is not very good right now, but I don’t have kids at home anymore, so I don’t have to stop at any given time. Additionally, when you’re working on something that you’re passionate about, it doesn’t feel like work. That said, my New Year’s resolution is that I will be doing less work and more fun things for Frances as I recognize that I’m getting burned out. I need to say no to more people because I typically operate on an “Oh, that’s a great idea, let’s do that, and I’ll figure it out” type of model. The line between my job and things I do outside of work is blurred because HP allows every employee four hours a month of paid time to volunteer on whatever they want. So often, when I first started doing guest lectures, I would call that my volunteer time, but that’s actually my job today.
What parts of your job do you find most challenging?
I’ve carefully designed the job to be challenging because it’s always breaking new ground, but challenging is not a bad thing. My job being challenging keeps me learning and researching, making connections, trying to figure things out, and working with some awesome partners, whether they be nonprofit or governments, trying to change things. The challenging piece is that you’ve got to make it up as you go along. There’s no recipe for most of what I do, which is change management at the end of the day. And so it is a test & learn & It’s important to be able to say, “Well, we tried that, and it didn’t really work, so we’re going to try something else, and that’s okay.” That makes it a constant learning journey. The other part is finding those allies who will come with you and can support you or actually understand what you’re talking about. A lot of people, particularly in the job I’m doing right now in terms of trying to change how Canada buys, are very leery of for-profit suppliers for a variety of reasons. Even in the guest lectures I do, some students assume all businesses are bad and ask, “how can you be a force for good?” The answer is that I still work in big industry because I actually think we have more power to do more good. In reality, it will take all of us, for-profit, nonprofit and government to bring about the changes needed.
What’s next for you, what are your long-term goals (if you have any)?
Well, I have a personal long-term goal, and then I have an HP long-term goal. So, my personal goal is to green every Higher Education Campus in Canada before I retire. And then for HP, it is to change the way Canada buys. So sustainability is preferentially and significantly counted in every purchasing transaction in Canada.
Advice for the next generations
What are 3 key skills required in your position?
I would say 1) public speaking/storytelling. I would consider that to be one of my core strengths. A lot of people can get good at it, but they often need a lot of time to get good at it. You need to practice a lot, so you’re comfortable with it because you need to be able to do it and often with little notice. Somebody will just say, “Oh, I’ve got an opportunity,” or even if it’s elevator pitching, sometimes you just have to go for it on the spur of the moment. Being able to distill that message into a way that is communicated well and resonates with your audience well enough for them to do something is critical. My (plagiarized) definition of leadership is the art of getting others to want to do what needs to be done. We are change agents. In order to be a change agent, you have to 2) understand how things work today. So, whether it’s a government, a business, or a nonprofit, how does that organization run today? And what are the levers that the CEO is pushing or pulling to make the organization more effective? And how can they be pushed or pulled to drive sustainability? So, if you don’t understand how a business works and all the functions in a business, you’re not going to be very effective. Hence, it doesn’t require you to be a sustainability professional to get stuff done. 3) The last one is really that change management piece. It is not a hard science; it is a social science thing. It’s not possible for one person to be an expert in everything we need and sustainability. You’ve got to collaborate and bring other people in with you. All professions require a person to practice in their area of expertise, but sustainability requires you to practice in everybody else’s profession. So, you’re the golden thread that ties all the lines of business together. The only other profession, other than the CEO, that works with all other lines of business is procurement. The big difference between procurement and sustainability is that people have to go to procurement, and they want to because they are trying to get something. Most people don’t want to deal with sustainability because they usually have no education in sustainability and don’t understand the consequences of their decisions. That means you have to be even more ingenious to work with people, and you have to let other people take the credit for the work that you do because it helps them get on board and do more. So, you have to be somewhat humble and not have a huge ego to work in space and be effective.
Whether it’s from your own path or the ones from your colleagues and friends who have a similar profession, how important is it to have a specific degree to be able to work in your industry/profession?
Given that we need every single profession to be leaning in on sustainability, I don’t think it’s important as a start. What I think is important is that we avoid sweating the small stuff. We need to focus on the big rocks, which means you have to have some basic literacy in things such as carbon emissions or whatever else is material to your business. For HP, 60% of our impact is in our supply chain. The other 39% is in customers using our products. We’ve got 55,000 people in 60 plus countries (pre-COVID), and the offices and all the employee’s travel represent just 1% of our total footprint. So, we don’t have time to work on that small stuff anymore. We have to be focused on the big picture. You need to understand in any given line of business what it is that you can do to contribute to the biggest rock. Keep very focused on that. From there, go out and get some help. Bring a consultant in, whatever you need to point you in the right direction, but then you don’t need sustainability qualifications to get working on it. Sustainability is changing fast, and we have a huge need for better metrics. We’re going to require more people with different strengths and expertise to come into the profession so you can bring different perspectives and bring better expertise. We’ve had 500 years of the general ledger, and still, things aren’t very good at being measured in the accounting side of the house. For sustainability, it’s been 50 years maybe, so this is a huge opportunity for getting better at doing the things we’re trying to do. Eventually, maybe it won’t even be called sustainability moving forward. It should just be normal business. Right?
What are some personal characteristics that you value in someone you’re interviewing/working with?
Open-mindedness because we don’t have all the answers. We’re going to be looking for answers, and in order to get there, you need to be collaborative. I would say Humility is a really good trait, and I always check for volunteering work as well.
Knowing what you know now, would you have done something differently with respect to your career? If not, why and what is your best life or career advice for youth?
I would say for them to know what their strengths are. If you’re familiar with the Clifton Strengths Finder, it’s a very useful tool, and the concept is that to be any kind of professional, you have to be competent in a certain range of things because there’s a base level of competency. For example, you need to work to be good in Excel, PowerPoint, and whatever else you need to be, but also you have core strengths that are innate in you, and if you work hard on them, you will hit it out of the park. I am a very poor attention to detail person. If you give it to me, I can do it, but I don’t enjoy it, and I’m not very good at it. So, the point is understanding what you’re good at and working on the stuff that you’re good at so that you can hit it out of the park. From there, surround yourself with people who are really good at the areas you are not, and create teams of people that ensure you have a good balance. For me, working as a factory inspector for the Ministry of Labor or even coming into the tech industry, we’ve got some real brainiac engineers, and it was a very white male industry when I first joined. As a young female, you never feel you know everything, and you can’t. Be confident in what you do know and accept that other people will know more than you. That said, very often, you are the only sustainability person in the room, so you don’t have to strut your stuff on that and accept that it’s about bringing everybody together to improve everything. To summarize, don’t feel you have to know everything, work on the things that you are good at, and continue to work on those, but be collaborative and bring everybody into the room with you.
As for if I would change anything, I love my job. I think you’ve got to bounce around to know where you feel most comfortable, but I would say that working in a purpose-driven company feels very different. It’s a joy to work with the kind of people you collaborate with; it’s not competitive; you’re all trying to lean in to make the whole thing better. So, look for social purpose organizations as a place where you can be more successful at this kind of work. Our CEO has a quote that says, “We define ourselves not by what we make, but by what we make possible.” That sums up what we are trying to do nicely.