You can’t really miss Frances Edmonds in Canadian corporate sustainability settings. The head of sustainable impact at HP Canada is rather tall and dons a stern confident look, a signature angular platinum bob, and a lilting British accent. She also happens to be one of the industry’s pioneering environment champions.
“Hard to believe that it’s been 20 years. If you had told me that when I’d joined HP I wouldn’t have believed it,” Edmonds muses.
In her two decades with the company, she’s helped shift the printer-and computer-making IT giant away from the old ‘take, make and dispose’ model towards a more circular one before many other companies put an emphasis on closing the loop on waste.
In a world where sustainability departments have often been staffed with marketers and communications experts, Edmonds has always brought a deeper vantage point to the table, thanks, in part, to her roots in environmental science. In her early days of working as a scientist testing water quality for a local UK water authority, Edmonds witnessed firsthand how industrial discharges were polluting natural ecosystems. It sparked an early desire to be part of the solution.
When Edmonds moved to Canada and was first hired at HP (back in 1999 when it was still called Hewlett Packard) as an environmental health and safety manager, the position initially had more to do with making sure internal environmental standards were being met. But her role expanded as she and her team began putting some of Canada’s earliest extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs in place. As provincial governments across the country started to implement EPR regulations, she utilized HP’s experience in product take-back and recycling to set industry standards for managing electronics end-of-life. She helped form Electronics Product Stewardship Canada, the not-for-profit industry-led association that still today works with provincial bodies to implement electronics waste management regulations.
Soon, Edmonds started to strategize about the value of what HP was attempting to construct for the future. “I wondered ‘How do you really shape a strong program that builds on the history of investment that we’ve had in sustainability?’ We’ve been a leader in this sector for so long, but there was no real competitive advantage in [being green] because we weren’t really telling our customers or our partners about it.”
Educating the public has become a life mission for Edmonds and she circles back to it again and again in our conversation. For one, Canadians have been taught that the solution to everything is recycling, having been brought up on the blue bin. “But, of course, it isn’t,” Edmonds says.
“What’s the point of recycling if you’re not creating the market for it? There’s a disconnect between people wanting to take action and how they actually buy.”
She does a lot of public speaking, including a 2016 Tedx Talks entitled Why Going Green is Good for Business. In her experience, almost everyone in any given audience raises their hand when she asks who recycles, but fewer hands go up when she asks how many people buy products specifically tagged as recycled content. “What’s the point of recycling if you’re not creating the market for it? There’s a disconnect between people wanting to take action and how they actually buy.”