Higher Stakes

Corporate sustainability increases your odds to make positive top-down change and to create large-scale, lasting environmental progress.

Written by Siobhan Mullally

HP Volunteers at Shoreline Clean Up
HP volunteers heading out for a shoreline cleanup.

Frances Edmonds has done groundbreaking work in corporate sustainability throughout her career. She is currently the Head of Sustainable Impact at HP Canada, which, since 2018, is Canada’s most sustainable technology company1 thanks to her leadership. Frances is an environmental change-maker, business strategist, and mentor to many, as she paves a way for businesses to strive toward a circular economic future.

It’s clear that Canada’s technology and business industries are moving in the right direction sustainability-wise; it’s an area with huge opportunities for people who want to make green progress. Jobs in these fields have great potential to make big changes – and fast, which is what we need today while facing the ticking clock of climate change. Corporate sustainability may just be the sweet spot for young graduates looking to make positive environmental change and progress with their career, and Frances Edmonds tells us why by sharing her insights from her experience in the field.

Siobhan Mullally for A\J: Do you remember a specific time in your life when you had that “aha” moment and decided to go into business? 

 FE: I worked in water quality testing, my first job out of high school. What I could see very clearly was the link between land use disruption and water contamination, and particularly when I was doing river sampling in the industrialized North of England, realizing that a lot of the pollution was coming from industry. I realized, this is not good, these are my rivers! I want them to be clean, so how am I going to fix that? I’m going to go learn all about it and, well, if you’re going to fix what’s happening in industry then you’ve got to be in there to fix it.

SM: What key practices put you on the path to success in your work?

FE: One of them is that you can’t know everything. Sustainability is huge and you can’t be an expert in all of it. So, sustainability is a team sport. 

You need everybody at the table, you need all of the strengths. Take HP as an example. We are thick with engineers and scientists and brilliant people, and I’m a sustainability person. Who am I to tell them what to do? For most sustainability people, you’re there in a guiding, mentoring type of role. It’s not Frances’ job to do sustainability – it is everybody’s job. 

Also, the ability to choose strategically which battles to fight and which ones not to fight. Not everybody is going to agree with you, but don’t take no for an answer. Figure out another way to get stuff done. You have to be very innovative. Today, I spend most of my time trying to change how Canada buys. Think about that – there’s no recipe on how to do that. I’m figuring it out as I go. I bring that skillset of having to collaborate and be that “golden thread”, and bring different people to the table, so that we can brainstorm about what needs to be changed, how we would change it, and what tools we have in our toolbox to make that change happen. 

“Sustainability is a team sport. You need everybody at the table, you need all of the strengths.”

SM: Environmental issues are often presented as environment versus economy. How do you get people to see both sides and break down that binary?

FE: The first thing is that we all live in a capitalist economy, and we all enjoy the benefits of it. We’re all participants. So, yes – we’d like to see things done differently, but capitalism has many different shades. It’s not strictly “business versus”. HP published last year that we had 3.5 billion dollars of business as a result of our sustainability leadership. Businesses are expected to step up and do more. The reality is that if you’re not doing sustainability, you’re not going to be in business. We can look at all of the data and say sustainable businesses perform better on the stock market by any of the metrics you want. Because you are building more sustainable business practices, you’re going to be around for longer and you’re going to be more profitable. So, the two are not mutually exclusive anymore and increasingly are expected. 

SM: What are some of the greatest pros and cons to working in corporate sustainability for you?

FE: I would say the greatest pro is that you have the resources to get stuff done. You’re not penny pinching if you can create a good enough business case.

And sometimes it’s not even a financial numbers business case, but it’s a heart story … In business, particularly the tech industry, we have this thing called “fail fast”. You’re encouraged to experiment and try things, but if it’s not working, just stop doing it and do something else. The “permission to fail” is an important piece. A lot of people, particularly when you’re starting your career, think that failure is a bad thing. Well, no. You learn from it and you move on. So, the ability to have resources and the ability to fail and not have it ruin your career. 

For cons… When I go and I talk to, say, a government buyer, they always think that because I’m coming from industry, I’m not being honest. That’s a tough place to come from. There’s a level of distrust with vendors, and probably for good reason from the past, but it’s hard for people in procurement to see some businesses trying to be good actors and wanting to do things because they’re the right thing to do. 

“The reality is that if you’re not doing sustainability, you’re not going to be in business.”


SM: In your career, how have you balanced being a woman in technology and business (generally, male dominated fields) and being a woman in the environmental field (mostly women)?

FE: HP is a very different kind of a company. For sure, when I first joined HP it was very much a male dominated business. Today, I report to a female CEO and most of her leadership team are female, so I’ve seen a big transition. Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a lifelong journey. I would say, personally, I have witnessed the change happening.

The nice thing about working in a multinational is that diversity is important because then you attract and retain the best talent because not everybody who’s the best is white and male. But also, to serve a global audience, you need a global perspective. The programs that we roll out have to be thought of from multiple angles and you only get that when you have a diversity of people around the table and you allow their opinions, thoughts, and perspectives to come through. You have to create that inclusive culture. We’re very much working on that and see it as a competitive advantage.

“Finding the time to go for a walk in the sunshine in the middle of winter is important. And not feeling guilty about it.”

SM: What advice would you give recent grads on how to make environmental change and still have a work/life balance?

FE: We have this concept that there’s a thing called work/life balance and it’s not what you think it is. It’s about when you decide you need to take time for yourself not feeling guilty about taking that time. It’s OK to pull a 10 hour day if you’re enjoying it and your body can handle it and you’re making progress – working smart, of course, not just doing 10 hours because you think you have to. When you work in a tech company, you’re judged on what you achieve, not how you achieve it, so nobody’s looking over your shoulder. You’re just given the tools to go ahead and get it done. So, being very attentive to your personal health that includes your mental health … if you need to take an afternoon off, just do it. It’s important. Finding the time to go for a walk in the sunshine in the middle of winter is important. And not feeling guilty about it. 

SM: How would you encourage young students to consider working in the corporate route as they decide to take a path after their degree?

FE: For me, it’s about impact. We’ve got 10 years – 9 now – to fix the climate catastrophe. As Canadians, we’ve set targets and consistently missed them and are not on track to meet the current targets that are too low anyway! We’ve never actually made it. Today in Canada, we only have 60 companies that have set science-based targets for carbon reduction. Huge opportunity there. Governments can get started, but at the end of the day, who’s delivering on those carbon reductions? It’s all the small and medium businesses that we need across the country. We need bright, smart people who are in business to make that change fast enough … When a CEO says, “I want this done”, 55,000 people at HP step up and say, “We’re going to make that happen.” So, where are you going to go? Let’s go into business and get all businesses to do what they need to do.

So, sustainability is good business! And the corporate world is welcoming new sustainability grads with open arms. There seem to be many opportunities to make positive top-down changes, which are so critical today since sustainability is everybody’s business. As Frances so befittingly said, sustainability is a team sport! Let’s start playing.