Balancing the Grind with Elissa Foster, Head of Sustainability at Who Gives A Crap

Elissa Foster is the Head of Sustainability at Who Gives A Crap, where she leads the company’s global sustainability strategy, covering operations in Australia, UK and USA.

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Let’s start with your background! Can you share with us your career journey and what you’re currently up to? 

I began my career in the public sector, serving as an Environmental Specialist for the City of Ventura, California. It was from here that I transitioned to a role at Patagonia, where I worked for 18 years examining production, supply chains, and operations. During my time at Patagonia, I earned my Doctorate in Environmental Science and Engineering from UCLA. 

This has all led me to my current role as Head of Sustainability at Who Gives A Crap, where I am tasked with leading our global sustainability strategy, covering operations in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Part of my role includes understanding the impact of our business on the environment, as well as identifying the areas of our business where we can improve or build upon our sustainability initiatives. I work closely with different teams across the business to set company-wide sustainability goals and develop actionable steps to achieve these. 

After so many years at Patagonia, I didn’t expect my career journey to lead me towards another consumer goods company. But I was blown away by Who Gives A Crap and its mission as a social enterprise. Everyone in the business truly stands behind the mission of helping provide everyone in the world with access to clean water and sanitation, and it’s this shared goal that motivates us to bring our whole selves to work each day. 

There’s no doubt that Who Gives A Crap has sustainability embedded at its very core, and I can see that this filters into everything we do – from product development to shipping and logistics. It’s always a journey, but one that I’m very excited to be a part of. 

We’d love to know what a typical day is like for you. Could you describe a recent workday?

I am based in Ventura, California and work from home – we’re a remote-first business and can work from anywhere.

My day typically consists of a few Zoom meetings (including with colleagues in the United Kingdom and Europe), a few hours of heads down work so I can dig into our sustainability initiatives and plans, and some time to read up on all things happening within the business and wider sustainability space. Working from home also allows me to have lunch with my 17-month old daughter most days, which I love.  

A big focus of my day is exploring how we can make our business and products as sustainable as possible. From day one, our brand has been built with sustainability in mind, and so our products have been designed to be good for butts and good for the planet. 

Our paper goods (like TP) are an excellent example of how using alternative fibres like bamboo and recycled paper are much better for the environment than virgin tree fibres. Every day over 1 million trees are cut down to produce traditional toilet paper.

Instead of flushing one of our most valuable resources down the toilet, we always look for more sustainable alternatives. But, being sustainable today doesn’t mean we aren’t trying to be even more sustainable tomorrow and my role is to work out the ‘how’. 

As a consumer goods brand, the majority of our environmental footprint comes from the manufacturing of our products, so one of my biggest projects has been working with our supply chain partners to implement renewable energy into our business and identify ongoing ways to reduce carbon emissions, including our first fleet of EVs.   

Can you define work-life balance for yourself and share with us your approach in maintaining it? 

To me, work-life balance means I am able to completely shut off on weekends and vacations in order to spend time with friends and family. 

We are fortunate at Who Gives A Crap that work-life balance is a business priority – after all, we do our best work when looking after our overall well being. We have several scheduled Slow Weeks each year – weeks designed to help us slow down – where only essential meetings are left in our calendars. These give us more time to focus on key and strategic work, attend one of our learning and development talks, or just take a breather. 

Who Gives a Crap also offers a unique benefit we call Life Leave. It is an extra 10 days that every employee can access throughout the year if ‘life happens’.

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Change is constant, and it’s essential for growth. Have you made any lifestyle changes in the past year to improve your work-life balance?

My husband and I have a young daughter and he’s a firefighter which means that he stays at the firestation several days a week. When he is working long shifts, it’s super important that I’m totally present and available to feed, bathe and put our daughter to bed. 

I recently blocked off my calendar for ‘family time’, starting at 5PM each evening, to ensure I can care for our daughter without conflicting priorities getting in the way. My team knows that I can be available for later meetings on evenings when my husband is home, which I also outline in my calendar. Using my calendar as a visible resource in this way has helped streamline communication with my team and has been well received by colleagues. 

When I started at Who Gives A Crap, I made it a priority to be very intentional about joining meetings. I found in my previous role I was on Zoom calls all day, and it resulted in having very little time to get work done and do the deep thinking needed for some projects – though I know this isn’t a feeling exclusive to me, with so many of us feeling the effects of post-pandemic Zoom fatigue. Joining Who Gives A Crap, I wanted to break this cycle, so now only join the meetings where I’m really needed (and I encourage my teams to do the same). 

We’re always on the lookout for new resources! Can you recommend any books, podcasts, or newsletters that have helped you in your journey towards balance?

Finding balance is different for everyone. For me, it’s actually my lived experiences that have helped to get me to a place where I am able to identify the things that are most important to me and make sure to prioritise those things. It certainly isn’t a linear experience and is one I’m still learning. 

Before we wrap up, do you have any final words of wisdom or insights on work, life, or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

I think that finding balance and peace in one’s life has a lot to do with knowing yourself really well – and being honest with what you enjoy, what motivates you, and what makes you feel happy and connected. Once you know these things, you can prioritise them and say ‘no’ to the things that don’t serve you. As I have gotten older, I have become much better at simply saying ‘no’ which has made space for the really important and wonderful things in my life.

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.