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The woman greening the golden arches

Can you use your MBA to save the planet? Just ask the chief sustainability officer at McDonald’s, Jenny McColloch. McColloch has one of the most influential sustainability jobs in the business world: leading the effort to green McDonald’s nearly 40,000 restaurants.

It’s a tough challenge that could transform all parts of the global company, from sourcing beef and chicken to new product development to water and power use. But it’s also rewarding: With restaurants in more than 100 countries, the opportunity to move the needle on climate change is enormous.

For this special episode, we super-sized our team. For our interview with McColloch, Yesh joined forces with Mike Toffel, host of Climate Rising, a podcast about the impact of climate change on business from Harvard Business School.


Jenny McColloch - Collaboration with HBS Climate Rising

Original release date: Sept 21, 2022

This transcript was auto-generated from an audio recording. Please excuse any typos or grammatical errors

Yesh Pavlik Slenk: 

A few years ago, McDonald’s flagship restaurant in Chicago got a serious makeover … a solar panel pergola and energy saving freezers. They even used CarbonCure in their concrete construction! Shout out to Christie from last episode. 

My favorite thing is the massive green roof - I’m talking THOUSANDS OF plants. They help reduce stormwater runoff and are just gorgeous. I’ve been and, honestly, it’s stunning. So full of light. It’s an oasis in the middle of the 3rd largest city in America. If McDonalds had a spa, this is what it would feel like.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. McDonald's, a sustainability champion? But the truth is, when it comes to making supply chains sustainable, McDonald’s can really help us move the needle on climate change. I mean they have over 40,000 restaurants in over 100 countries. Talk about scale.

So, for this special episode, we are super-sizing our team. I’m joining forces with Climate Rising, a podcast about the impact of climate change on business hosted by Mike Toffel, a professor at Harvard Business School. Together, we interview one of the most influential people in corporate sustainability today, Jenny McColloch, she’s a former Climate Corps fellow and the CSO -- Chief Sustainability Officer at well -- you guessed it -- McDonalds! 

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Change is coming, oh yeah

Ain’t no holding it back

Ain't no running 

Change is coming, oh yeah!

This is Degrees: Real talk about planet-saving careers from Environmental Defense Fund. Before we jump into my conversation with Mike and Jenny… a couple things. 

First, this entire episode is like an Ask Yesh segment because a question I get all the time is, Can I use an MBA to save the planet? 

Well, you definitely can. But if it’s a good fit, is another question. Jenny’s experience can help you figure out if corporate sustainability is the right path for you. 

And second, I want to explain a couple specific terms we use in the interview.

We talk about something called scope, which is how companies categorize their emissions -- in 1, 2, or 3. With Jenny, we talk a lot about Scope 3 -- which are the emissions from supply chain and franchisees. Since franchisees make up 95% of McDonald’s restaurants, scope 3 emissions are pretty important.

Also, SBTs stands for science based targets.They provide a clearly-defined pathway for companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help prevent the worst impacts of climate change. McDonald’s uses SBTs. And that’s a really good thing. 

Lastly, we talk about absolute targets and intensity targets. They are two ways to measure emissions reductions. The absolute target is trying to reduce ALL of the emissions. And the intensity target is emissions relative to some other factor like number of employees or revenue. This kind of target accounts for economic growth.  Here are some examples to put into real people terms. An example of an intensity target would be reducing the emissions per chicken nugget, while continuing to sell more happy meals each year. An absolute target would be saying that no matter how many chicken nuggets we sell, we're going to reduce the amount of total emissions that come from our chicken.

With that, let’s dive in! 


Mike Toffel:

I'm Mike Toffel, host of Climate Rising.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk: 

I'm Yesh Pavlik Slenk, host of Degrees.

Mike Toffel:

Today, we're doing something a little different. On today's show, we're having a joint conversation that will air both on Climate Rising, a podcast about business and climate and on Yesh's podcast about planet saving careers.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk: 

Happy to be doing this with you. Now Mike, you're a professor at Harvard Business school. Tell me about what you teach and how does Climate Rising fit in?

Mike Toffel: 

So I do research and teaching on how companies are managing their environmental issues in their operations and supply chains. And so that includes doing scholarly work in that area, as well as writing a series of case studies on how companies are they're managing decarbonization. Folks across the school here are working on not only decarbonization, but climate resilience and climate entrepreneurship, carbon accounting and climate finance, corporate collaborations with NGOs and consultants.

Climate Rising has really enabled me to talk to a great number of people about these topics and hear really from practitioners, mostly business folks, but also some NGOs and some consultants about how they're tackling these issues. It's been a really nice window on the world. 

Tell us a little bit about Climate Corps and the Degrees podcast.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk: 

Yeah. I'd love to. Well, Climate Corps is a unique summer fellowship program and it's administered by Environmental Defense Fund, where I work. We recruit and we train and then embed graduate level students in companies and cities and nonprofits, where for the summer they drive projects that set climate targets for companies or reduce energy consumption for cities or procure renewable energy or even engage suppliers on emissions reduction strategies.

It started back in 2008 because we saw a gap in businesses where they weren't doing enough, or not even enough, but they weren't even trying anything to try to reduce their carbon footprint. And we saw an opportunity for them to have a win-win scenario where they were doing right by the planet and saving money. Our first cohorts were nearly 100% business school students.

Now, of course, we recruit well beyond the MBA cohorts and we recruit fellows from a lot of different academic backgrounds. And we've expanded the program to both China and India. After 15 years, we've deployed more than 1500 fellows. Most of whom are now working on sustainability in their careers, around the globe. 

And the Degrees podcast, which is now in its fourth season, aims to introduce professionals who are like our fellows, who are growing in their green careers to virtual mentors so that they can both be inspired and informed as they map out their journey to impact. 

This season's theme is jobs of the future, because the green jobs revolution is already here. 

And so today, Mike and I wanted to talk with one of our star Climate Corps alumni, someone who I know also feels urgency around the climate crisis, who holds an MBA. We are eager to hear her talk about her journey leading to sustainability at McDonald's. Welcome to the show, Jenny McColloch.

Jenny McColloch:   

Thank you so much, Yesh. Thanks Mike, for having me. It is great to be here with you both today.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk:  

Well, Jenny, we've known each other for a long time. So for our listeners, tell us what your role is at McDonald's.

Jenny McColloch: 

So my role at McDonald's today is as chief sustainability officer. I lead our sustainability and ESG team globally. We work with partners to address some of the world's most pressing social and environmental challenges that are affecting our business, but also affecting the communities where we're operating, where our franchisees are operating and where our suppliers that produce our food and packaging are operating. 

Yesh Pavlik Slenk:

 I'd love to hear a little bit more about your journey to what you're doing now. You know, you didn't just finish your MBA and then all of a sudden, chief sustainability officer at McDonald's. Tell us how you got here.

Jenny McColloch: 

I've been at McDonald's about 10 years and I've had the privilege to work in sustainability related fields the whole time that I've been at McDonald's. But to get here, I would think back to actually my undergrad experience. When I was an undergraduate, I was very focused on environmental science, economics and policy. 

And at that time there really wasn't a big focus on corporate sustainability careers. That wasn't as much of a known field. This type of job that I have today wasn't really on my radar back then. I spent a few years working in the environmental education and science education nonprofit sector. After working there for a while, I wanted to see what working in the private sector, really just acknowledging the lever for change that business represents, was all about. So I went to the Yale School of Management and did the full-time MBA program there.

While I was there, got really interested in exploring different types of career channels. So I spent some time looking at social enterprise consulting, in addition to testing out whether corporate sustainability jobs would be a good fit for me.

I share it from that lens because I do think of MBAs, especially if you do a full time program, as exploratory and career exploring opportunities. It's really exciting to be able to have the time to really look around and see what's of interest. 

During that time is when I met Climate Corps. And just was so amazed and impressed by the network. 

So I had the chance to do Climate Corps with the Nestlé Waters North America team. I would say what really motivated me at the time was first hearing a CEO talk about his passion for sustainability and why it was very important to their business and their brand. And then getting introduced to the sustainability team, spending time looking at energy efficiency in bottling plants and issues related to marine plastics and how do we keep waste out of nature, all that kind of thing.

And then fast forward to finishing up school, had an opportunity to connect with the team at McDonald's that was hiring for a supply chain sustainability role and move to Chicago. 

Mike Toffel:  

So can you say a little bit more about how you progressed from a supply chain sustainability role to become CSO? That seems like quite a journey in, I think a matter of 10 years, you said?

Jenny McColloch: 

Absolutely.  At the time that I joined, we were working on probably the first global set of sustainability goals that McDonald's had had. The company had a number of different programs, including the initial partnership with EDF a long time ago, on packaging and waste reduction.

What we were working on in those early years when I joined the business was, how do we align all of our suppliers? How do we align our franchise, business units in over a hundred countries around the world to embrace a journey on sustainability goals and social responsibility commitments at a global scale? Got a very early say crash course in what it takes to align a very complex business model and connect with different teams and functions around the business, which I would say really let me both focus on sustainable sourcing at the early days and then a broader environmental management slate as my roles evolved. But really thinking through the lens of an MBA.It's definitely not just an activity of the sustainability team. 

So about a year in, I moved over from the US supply chain team over into the global sustainability team. But really have been looking at advancing our programs on climate, advancing our programs on sustainable sourcing and agriculture and a number of different initiatives ever since.

I would say, as I've advanced in leadership levels within the business, have done more work in terms of internal business integration. So how does the sustainability strategy team work with other leaders around the company and other teams to embed and integrate our sustainability and social impact commitments into their team's agenda?

For my own personal advancement, that combination of both my environmental background, but really the MBA kind of breadth of skills was very meaningful to being able to navigate around a complex global business like this one. 

Mike Toffel: 

Great. So let's talk a bit about the work itself. In 2021, McDonald's released its inaugural Climate Risk and Resilience Summary Report. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the highlights there. 

Jenny McColloch: 

When I first joined we were just aligning around global goals to begin with. And we started, with more of a focus on the component parts of what then became our climate strategy. We had worked with World Wildlife Fund and other NGOs to help prioritize in the commodities that we source, which ones had the most impact. And where we as McDonald's could have an influence in helping affect change on energy efficiency in the restaurants and then commitments around beef sustainability, looking at how we source our chicken, how we source our packaging, ensuring that we were preventing deforestation in the areas that we source from where there is a risk of deforestation. So I give you all this context because before we ever had a climate goal and an emissions goal, it took that focus on the more individual component parts, getting understanding around the company about why all of these different initiatives were very important, was really meaningful foundation laying work in the early years. 

Fast forward to around 2017, '18, we wanted to advance our strategies. where do we need to be setting actual climate targets and emissions reduction targets to really modernize our approach in this area. Had a tremendous set of partners across different NGO groups and academic advisors, but ended up becoming in 2018, the first global restaurant company to set science-based targets for emissions reduction that covered that whole restaurant and supply base.

We operate in nearly 40,000 communities worldwide. So of course, a big part of our carbon footprint and our emissions targets need to focus on our restaurants. So we look at the restaurant base, which is about 95% owned and operated by independent franchisees.

In carbon speak, independent franchisees means Scope 3. So everything to do with our restaurants needs to be a mix of thinking about what can we do as a corporation from the center and what can we do to empower our franchisees.

When we initially set out to set our targets, we knew we needed to bring along both the restaurant base as well as the food and packaging supply chain, which is by far the biggest contributor from an emissions standpoint. We ended up working with SBTI, working with advisors to set targets that covered the restaurants and offices in one set of absolute emissions reduction targets and then bring along the supply chain with an intensity based target to reduce emissions per ton of food and packaging. Because we found that together, that enabled us to decouple our business growth that we were projecting from our emissions growth.

Mike Toffel:  

Just to provide a little clarity on the absolute versus intensity distinction. So absolute means even if you open more restaurants, at least owner operated restaurants, they have -- that becomes part of the emissions that has to be reduced by some absolute target that you've already set?

Jenny McColloch:  

That's right. We were accounting for the growth across our restaurant base and our supply chain as we set those targets because we knew that the business would continue to grow and we wanted to make sure we had baked that into our target setting.

Mike Toffel: 

Why did you set an absolute for one and intensity for the other, as opposed to going with intensity for both or absolute for both?

Jenny McColloch:

I'd say it's a variety of factors in terms of bringing people along, but probably the biggest factor is related to how we can measure emissions related to agriculture. There's still a lot of conversation about measuring emissions related to land use change and food production back at the farm level. And so with the growth that we were projecting, but still the uncertainties, it was most appropriate to look at a way that we weren't trying to overwhelm the system with a new batch of targets that just said, "Stop doing what you're doing and reduce, reduce, reduce." 

Preventing deforestation, enabling nature based solutions, could be part of that package and see a channel for opportunity to continue working with the food and packaging suppliers that we worked with.

Quite honestly, I think that the accounting wasn't there and it's still being sorted out among a lot of us working in this space, including scientists and academics, to be able to point to: here's a very set number and a very set emissions reduction pathway. 

That intensity based target model enabled some flexibility with how we approached this whole landscape. While knowing that in the commercial built environment side of our system, that we would continue with that more absolute reduction lens.

All of that landscape continues to evolve. Those targets that we set in 2018, companies are expected to keep assessing the latest science, keep assessing the latest methodologies for accounting and adapt and evolve and modernize their targets over time.

We are still continuing to work with SBTI, all of the NGOs that feed into it and a lot of other practitioners, particularly in the forest, land use and agriculture space, on how do we evolve those targets to be in line with the latest science, to be simpler for our system and to really reflect the latest and greatest in terms of nature based solutions for climate change? 

Mike Toffel: 

Great.  So, when we think about the franchisees, which you said is 95% of the restaurants, is it up to them to figure out what their targets are? Are they following along the McDonald's Corp targets? How does that work?

Jenny McColloch:

So there are certain levers for emissions reductions that the franchisees actually don't need to be thinking about. We at the center have amazing design and development teams that set restaurant prototypes from a design, from a kitchen equipment perspective. Things like lighting, specs for grills and fryers. The franchisees’ part of buying into the McDonald's business model is that they have access to that design, all of those sort of latest innovations in equipment and aren't having to manage those decisions on their own. 

Same with the supply chain of our food and packaging. They're looking at ordering from the approved suppliers that McDonald's Corp sets from the center. So I give that context because in many ways, many of our biggest emissions drivers across our footprints, whether it's kitchen energy loads or food and packaging, supply chain commodities like beef or different proteins that we're serving, the franchisees aren't needing to make those decisions themselves. 

That said, when it comes to actually sourcing energy locally or how we maintain and operate the equipment in the restaurants that's where we work directly with franchisees on things like renewable energy purchasing or efficiency programs that actually help them save a lot of money -- very Climate Corps like in its scoping -- where those interests are very aligned in terms of emissions reduction and cost savings and reducing volatility for their P&L.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk:

Listening to you, one thing that continues to stick with me in bright flashing lights in my brain is 40,000 restaurants. It's an incredible scale, not to mention the suppliers and everyone else that you work with. 

You have this huge beast that you're trying to move forward in the right direction. Can you talk a little bit about how -- how this journey has really been challenging in some ways?

Jenny McColloch:

I think a good example of where that complexity has come to life and how patient we need to be in this work is looking at the work that we've done over the last decade plus in beef. Very early on we knew beef was going to be a big part of our journey. When I joined the company, there was not any sort of definition for what beef sustainability means. There was not a lot of alignment globally in how we talk about sustainability with farmers and ranchers of beef and all of the supply chains that sit between ranches and a customer enjoying their burger.

We needed to start with framing the conversation at the industry level so that we weren't just coming in as McDonald's and saying, "Must do X, Y, and Z, because my climate agenda tells, tells us we must." You know, that wouldn't have been the right way to bring along the sector. We had to have a very collaborative and multi stakeholder approach. So we set up with a bunch of other partners, the global roundtable on sustainable beef, set up a whole series of industry round tables at the local level, just to get the industry and our partners to the same table.

So couple of years spent, looking at how do we define sustainable beef principles? How do we surface innovations and showcase pioneering farmers and ranchers that are innovating and leading with some of the best practices, whether it comes from on-farm efficiency or protecting forest and landscapes or different innovations with things like feed and everything in beef ranching.

Fast forward to then a few years later, we had enough momentum with our supplier partners, with farmers and rancher networks to then be able to actually have conversations on emissions and climate change and really learn how is climate change affecting farmers and ranchers. They're the ones that are out there working the lands every day.

I think those early years of work building up the relationships, building up the innovation models with the ranching community has helped then to create the stage now where we have industry groups setting carbon reduction goals for the whole beef sector. You look at Australia as an amazing example there. We have incredible dialogue and knowledge sharing among farmers and ranchers on different innovations that we can see in the land. We've got a lot of research programs that are underway looking at regenerative agriculture, looking at different soil carbon sequestration opportunities, based on different grazing practices of the animals around the farms. We need to take systems change view to this conversation and not just come in and say, "Okay, how are we reducing our emissions next year?" 

Mike Toffel: 

So can you say a little bit more about how carbon intensive beef is and whether that is declining due to these new technologies and innovative practices and where you envision it going?

Jenny McColloch:

It is, it is resource intensive industry, for sure. I think it varies a lot in different countries on the emissions intensity based on production practices. What we've found is that if you look at McDonald's footprint, about 10 countries represent about 85% of our beef sourcing around the world. We've prioritized looking at production practices in those areas. Together, that's the majority of our supply chain carbon footprint is related to beef and dairy.

I can think of our UK program. For example, we started years back measuring emissions with the different sort of producer clubs -- they call them sustainable beef clubs in the UK and Ireland -- and measuring on farm emissions. And over years, saw emissions coming down based on what they were able to measure. But that conversation will look different than our measurement of preventing deforestation in Brazil, which is the biggest focus there in that region, as you might expect.

We see tremendous potential in nature based solutions, so different grazing practices. We've done research studies that show the soils have a greater ability to have bio-diverse flora and fauna in the soils that then help absorb carbon.

Exactly how we can measure it at a ranching scale or industry scale is still being worked out. But we can anticipate that that kind of more direct metrics from farms and ranches will be continued to be incorporated into our tracking.

Mike Toffel: 

I wonder if you can just speak a little bit about some kind of out of the box ideas which would include lab grown beef on the one hand and beef substitute, sort of the plant-based movement. Can you just speak to how those are playing out in the McDonald's world?

Jenny McColloch: 

Today we're focused on what our customers are asking us for. So for now, most of our customers around the world are asking us for the traditional McDonald's menu items that you expect, burgers from beef or chicken, our filet of fish.

We have a delicious McPlant offering in the regions where customers are asking that of McDonald's. As it continues to grow and scale, we will continue to see where opportunities to bring that into the system are. For now, we're looking at, I would say more of the classics and how we can work with those suppliers and producers in those value chains to keep working on nature-based solutions and working on climate action.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk: 

McDonald's, from a Climate Corps perspective, has always been one of our most popular placements. Why do you think McDonald's and the food service sector is such a draw for people who are interested in climate and business?

Jenny McColloch: 

I think McDonald's is an interesting brand for people in the Climate Corps program, because everyone has some sort of connection to McDonald's, either from growing up or because they're interested in the food sector or because they're interested in international business. 

And then I think from an MBA lens, especially it is such an exciting intersection between consumer interests and sort of marketing and customer segmentation, food and the culture of food, producers of food, farmers, ranchers all around the world. 

And then a complex business model in today's very fast paced environment where we're operating in over a hundred countries around the world with an entirely independent supply chain and over 2 million people working under the arches, either for McDonald's or franchisees every day. So it's exciting to be connected to both such a global brand and one that touches down in local communities in the way that we do with our franchise model and with our supplier network.

When it comes to Climate Corps, There was a couple fellows that worked over the years at our innovation center, where a lot of the kitchen design efficiency work happens.

We had a fellow during the years when we were in that real target setting scoping phase. So helped us think through stakeholders to bring along on the journey and leverage those skills.

We've had fellows looking at different sustainable finance potential opportunities as the funding and climate risk models continue to bridge into conversations with investors and shareholders. But at the end of the day, I go back to what probably drew me to this space more than anything, which is sustainability at the intersection of the food and beverage sector is just inherently very exciting and it's critical. Everybody has to eat and drink. how we produce food, how we engage supply chains, how we have local supply chains and global supply chains is a really critical challenge that this world is facing.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk: 

I want to kind of get into that psyche of the person who is really excited about this opportunity. What skills or experiences does an up and coming professional need to do what you do, and to do what members of your team do, to really make an impact?

Jenny McColloch: 

Some of the skills that I think are most important, I wouldn't attribute to a particular impact area. I have practitioners in my team that work on climate action or forests or nutrition, human rights, philanthropy. So anybody who's interested in that work, that's great foundational background. Across those different impact areas, skills that are important are: good communication skills, good listening skills.

The ability to look across the enterprise and think through which partners and functions do we need to bring along in our work? And not come at enterprise and business integration through the lens of pushing a sustainability or social impact agenda, but rather how does a sustainability or social impact ambition align with the interests of a particular function? And how can we show that our interests are actually quite aligned in that way?

So I think that, that MBA sort of muscle of different interdisciplinary thinking and the savvy to know how to shift gears and shift vernaculars, as it were, based on which teams that we're working with and needing to partner with is a critical skill. Keeping pulse on different sectors and different research studies that are interesting, who are leading brands, who are good thought leaders that you admire. That sort of outside-in view and ability to distill the external context for a business or for different teams around the company is as critical as the actual scientific expertise or the financial acumen that you might be building in the classroom. 

Yesh Pavlik Slenk: 

There have to be some projects that really stick in your mind, in your heart, accomplishments that you're really proud of. Do you have an example you can share with us?

Jenny McColloch: 

So first, I'll just start with a large scale example. When we went to look at how we could continue to advance renewable energy sourcing here in the US, we found that taking an approach of community based renewable energy and on-site innovation, when you're talking about 14,000 restaurants, just across the US alone, wasn't going to be the most practical way to really advance emissions reductions at the level that we would need to for McDonald's system.

So we found some really amazing partners who help us look for larger scale virtual power purchase agreement models and looking at embedding considerations for both clean energy, whether it's wind, whether it's solar, but also thinking about the community impacts and the jobs that can advance in places where energy infrastructure is being worked on.

We have today in place, a series of virtual power purchase agreements that have instigated new wind projects. One of the largest scale of wind projects in the US that we got to go and visit and help meet the community that was embracing this new wind farm that a couple of us helped fund. Similarly, seeing that scaling around the US, it's going to be a massive contributor to the emissions reduction of our restaurant base. And even just the ones that we've invested in so far as they come online are going to cover 30% reduction off our entire, global restaurant footprint from a carbon standpoint.

The other end of that spectrum, we also learn a lot from local innovation. for example, in the UK, we have restaurant design teams that are looking at what onsite opportunities for different material design to use more recycled materials in the restaurant construction. What could we pilot in the local community to make leading edge restaurant prototypes that we could learn from and test and scale some things over time through our restaurant design prototypes. 

Mike Toffel: 

Can I ask the flip side of that question?

Jenny McColloch: 


Mike Toffel: 

What are the areas where you find to be quite challenging and where we need technological breakthroughs or innovation from the supply chain, perhaps outside companies or companies inside your supply chain? 

Jenny McColloch: 

One that's not a single solve, but is something that all of us as practitioners in this space are dealing with is, better more efficient ways to track data so that we can both have more insight and data driven actions that we're investing in and programs that we're investing in. But also so that we can track our progress and make sure we're not necessarily focusing in the wrong places.

I do think that the technologies out there to make measurement more straightforward for farmers and ranchers, for example, need to keep growing and scaling. As do the trust in communications about how data is used and how it will be used as it sort of aggregates up across supply chains. 

But especially as we look ahead, one of the things that I think keeps any sustainability practitioner up at night is just the expectations for real time data reporting, regulations around reporting in terms of how to most efficiently track and report out in a way that's really credible.

The other, I would say, kind of goes back to what we were talking about a bit before on agricultural solutions that really help drive incentives for regenerative or climate smart agriculture. There's still quite a few barriers to farmers and ranchers adopting different practices because change is risky.

I think whether it's insurance solutions or financing solutions that can go alongside the natural agricultural production practice solutions that we've been talking about are as important as facilitating the systems change that we need.

So again, I think it's really looking at that holistic systems view and saying, "Okay. We've got good innovation underway over here and in the agricultural practices side,” what are the other systems and barriers that we're going to need to keep working on and innovating in to unlock the data sharing, the incentives and really bringing along all the communities that we need to bring along?

Last one, I'll say, not so much a climate agenda, as much as a packaging and circularity agenda. I do think I would be remiss if I didn't, as a food service practitioner, acknowledge how much packaging innovation we still have ahead of us. Customers around the world love convenience. They love food on the go. And there are tremendous innovations underway in packaging writ large. A lot of those tend to focus on CPG companies and different material design for packaged goods.

We'd love to scale and roll out some of those packaging innovations faster if we could. I think you can probably all think of an alternative fiber straw that wasn't performing at the level of quality that you might want it to have been performing. We need more innovation in that space too. 

Mike Toffel: 

Yeah, I think a lot of people don't realize the connections between packaging. They think about it as a litter issue perhaps, but not so much the upstream climate impact and the water impact. And then the recycling or disposal impacts as well. It's a rich area for climate impacts as well.

Jenny McColloch: 

We include packaging in our carbon footprinting and our climate targets and most of our packaging is fiber based and comes from forests that are certified sustainable or from recycled fiber.

As those percentages have increased over the years, the emissions profile has gone down. And also as plastic innovation has continued to advance, we just have a small portfolio of our packaging that is plastic, mainly due to food safety or customer experience preferences. And the innovation on more recycled plastics or more bio-based plastics has been really encouraging. But like you said, all of that has to be coupled with recoverability and infrastructure systems to prevent that from getting into nature.

Mike Toffel: 

So I think a lot of people would imagine that because McDonald's is so large, that its buying power would really enable it to pretty much tell suppliers to do what it wants to do because it's sort of this huge global supply chain. But as I've talked to other companies, I've been surprised by sometimes them saying, "Our hugeness is a help in some ways, but it's also a hindrance in others." I wonder if you can reflect on that from your experience.

Jenny McColloch: 

I think for any type of business, there's trade offs when it comes to size and scale. I think about this also from MBAs being interested in different types of companies or places to go work. Working at large institutions, you have the ability and the privilege and really the responsibility to think about systemic industry-wide solutions and change that's needed. And they're complex and slow to move and harder to just make change overnight.

For people who want to see things happen really quickly, perhaps a company more in the startup phase of the world would be more interesting where you could really focus on innovation and design and that forefront of solutions. And all the companies in between that are going from early stage and helping grow and scale and really what's standing in the way of that.

All of it's really interesting, but you're going to have a different experience and way of working and driving impact depending on what type of size and maturity of organization you go work in.

Back to your question on suppliers. We have, I would say, the privilege because of our scale to have long term and often large volume relationships with global suppliers and local suppliers around the world. That doesn't just mean that we can say, "Do X." And the supplier will go do X. That's not how the relationship model for sustainability, for food safety, for food quality, for innovation and menu, that's not how it works well. It works best when we talk about shared strategic priorities, 

When it comes to sustainability in particular, It's more about how do we set that as an expectation for partners of the McDonald's system and how then do we learn from suppliers of where they're already innovating, maybe further ahead of us, that can help bring along those companies that are earlier on in their sustainability journeys? Or how do we keep measuring progress and ensuring that suppliers are working to set goals and targets that are aligned with ours, but also with a variety of the other customers that they're serving.

There's very few suppliers that we work with who only serve McDonald's. And as a result, we have to be a lot more holistic in understanding why any of our priorities is important for them and making sure that our commitments are lining up. Their large customers are asking for the same type of partnerships on sustainability journeys that we're asking for.

So I'm encouraged by that scale. I think it's how we're driving the systems change. It's not always easy. But really, that's where the opportunity for learning and sharing and continuing to advance the progress really sits. I look at it through an encouraging lens rather than a daunting lens, because it's a bit more inspiring to show up that way.

Mike Toffel: 


Yesh Pavlik Slenk:

Finally, a question both of us like to ask our guests is what advice or resources can you share with people who want to get into this field, who are passionate and career-oriented toward a job in business and climate?

Jenny McColloch: 

Some really good advice I got when I was doing my MBA program was to make sure that you're talking to people about what your interests are. I think a lot of times, it's a natural inclination not to want to share too much about yourself, but if you don't share your interests and talk with people, you're not going to be leveraging your networks properly in terms of having a bunch of scouts out there for opportunities that might be of interest for you at different companies.

Certainly that's how I got connected in with my first boss at McDonald's, was because a colleague of mine in business school had interned here and. While I was doing my internship at Nestlé and had said, "I know you're interested in food and beverage. There's an opportunity coming up. I have another job somewhere else. You should really talk to this person."

Lo and behold, here I am 10 years later and I haven't left. So I think just making sure that you're sharing your interests and story and, learning from people that you're connected to is a big one.

The other one I would just say, that not getting too fixated on a perfect first job out of business school or out of any sort of undergraduate program is really important. I like to think about it more as taking a good first step and making sure that feels like a good fit. And if it is a good fit and you stay, that's great. I certainly have had that experience. But if it's not, I would say the vast majority of the people that I went to grad school with are no longer at the places where they went to work directly out of school.

Keeping your mindset open about learning from your first step out of grad school and understanding and giving yourself permission to shift gears, if you feel like you need to. I think that's really key.

The last thing I would just say is to be thinking about different types of sectors or companies or leaders that seem really interesting to you and seem really inspiring because it's not a field where there's just consulting or finance, those sort of routine batch of new jobs that come up every year.

You really have to be thoughtful about creative opportunities depending on what your unique interest areas are. Maybe you want to go work in energy, maybe you want to work in food. Anything in the food space is going to inherently have sustainability connections and will be interesting, I know that.

But I think there's a lot of different sectors and companies sizes out there that are going to be connected into this conversation. And just keeping tabs on which sectors feel like they're working on challenges that you might be interested to go spend time working on, I think will help guide searches. And then of course talking about what those interests are so people know when to connect you in would be great.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk: 

Well, Jenny, I just want to say thank you. And Mike, it's been such a pleasure sharing the mic with you 

Jenny McColloch: 

Well, thanks for having me. I really enjoyed the conversation.

Mike Toffel: 

Thanks so much, Jenny. And Yesh, it's been a real pleasure. 


Yesh Pavlik Slenk: 

And that's it for this episode! Make sure to listen and follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, or wherever you're listening now. And share this podcast with a friend so you can both tune in each week and hear how you can help fight climate change. And learn where the jobs are and how you can make a difference. 

On the next episode of Degrees, I talk with Wes Gobar, a historian turned environmental justice advocate, about Black Oak Collective -- which is a networking organization that is building a community for Black environmentalists and leveling the playing field of access to green jobs. 

Until then, check out our Green Jobs Hub to find all the resources you need to jumpstart your green job career search.

Degrees is presented by Environmental Defense Fund. Amy Morse is our producer. Podcast Allies is our production company. Tressa Versteeg, Elaine Grant, and Matthew Simonson worked on this episode. A huge thanks to the Climate Rising Podcast Team: Mike Toffel, Kate Zerrener, and Craig McDonald.

Our music is Shame, Shame, Shame from my favorite band, Lake Street Dive. And I’m your host, Yesh Pavlik Slenk. But the foundation of the show, dear listener, is you. Stay fired up y’all.


Change is coming, oh yeah

Ain’t no holding it back

Ain't no running 

Change is coming, oh yeah!

Jenny McColloch:

For a brand like McDonald's, we're a restaurant company... We have... Sorry. I'm going to start again. There's lights going off here in the room.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk:

Oh, no!

Jenny McColloch:

I can't see anything.

Mike Toffel:

That's happened to me too.


Jenny McColloch:

It’s gonna be a technology challenge day guys, sorry.

View credits

Degrees is produced with Podcast Allies. The artwork is by illustrator Bee Johnson. Degrees theme music is by the amazing band Lake Street Dive. We love their powerful video and song Making Do, all about climate change.

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