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Lessons From the Blue Oval to the Golden Arches

Ian Olson shares a uniquely global perspective on supply chain sustainability with MSES students 

If you want to learn the intricacies and challenges of supply chain sustainability, being taught by the person responsible for supply chain sustainability strategy at a company that feeds 1 percent of the world’s population on any given day is probably a great place to start.   

Ian Olson is the senior director for global supply chain sustainability strategy at McDonald's, and for the past four years he’s taught Sustainable Supply Chain Management to students in Northwestern's Master of Science in Energy and Sustainability (MSES) program, which is jointly offered by Northwestern Engineering and the Paula M. Trienens Institute for Sustainability and Energy.  

To say Olson brings a wealth of knowledge into the classroom undersells the massive supply chain and sustainability efforts he and McDonald's are undertaking.    

Ian Olson“The best way I've always tried to sum it up is, in the next 40 years, we have to grow as much food as we've grown in the last 10,000 years using no more land, no more water, and we'll probably have half as many farmers,” said Olson, who has been at McDonald’s for nearly a dozen years. “Supply chains have changed radically over the last 20 to 30 years, so how does a thriving food system become part of the solution going forward?”   

Finding that solution is Olson’s and McDonald’s mission. In 2021, the company committed to adapting its climate target to keep global temperature rises below 1.5 degrees Celsius and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The responsibility for achieving that falls largely on the team Olson supports, and the knowledge he gains from tackling the task filters its way into the MSES classroom. His classes often feature graduate students from across the University, including the Kellogg School of Management.      

The focus of Olson’s lessons reflects the growing trend that ties sustainability and supply chain management into the overall framework of a company’s business plan.  

Part of Olson’s classroom mission is to show students that all supply chains are not the same, and each comes with its own unique challenges — a lesson he’s learned over a long career in supply chain sustainability. Prior to his time at McDonald’s, Olson was the director of sustainability at Darden Restaurants, which operates Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, and The Capital Grille, among other prominent restaurants. Before that he started his sustainability journey in 2000 working at Ford Motor Company, where he established the company's first supply chain sustainability office.     

“Heavy manufacturing supply chain is not the same as apparel. It's not the same as tech. It's not the same as food or consumer product goods,” he said. “The issues are different, the issues are prioritized differently, and the supply chains themselves are physically different.”   

Olson backs this up with an extensive roster of guest speakers, including supply chain colleagues from Microsoft, the Walt Disney Company, Ralph Lauren, Starbucks, and more.  

Olson’s class delves deeply into those issues and focuses on each supply chain’s impact on everything from the environment to human rights. In that, the class’s focus is extremely similar to that of McDonald’s.    

The fast-food company opened in 1955 and, since then, has served nearly a quarter trillion beef burgers, or more than 75 burgers every second. And that’s just focusing on the beef, without mentioning everything from the tomatoes to the napkins to the technology that keeps the entire operation running smoothly.   

Perhaps the biggest change since the company’s founding has been the push for transparency into how companies impact people and the environment through their supply chains.  

“There’s a focus on land and good land management, a focus on farmers’ livelihoods, a focus on water – not just water from a scarcity standpoint but a quality standpoint,” he said. “What we are learning is carbon is a ‘free rider’ to good land management. Better soil health should lead to carbon sequestration, better adaptability to a changing world, better water resiliency, less inputs, better yields, and hopefully better farmer livelihood.”   

Olson said his vast experience helps students leave his MSES class filled with valuable knowledge they can apply throughout their career.   

“We're really trying to give the students a toolkit or a way of thinking as they move forward in their careers,” he said. “I want them to be able to analyze whatever supply chain they're working with and quickly realize, ‘Hey, these are the salient issues that I should be thinking about.’”