CES alum spotlights sustainability at Kohl’s

When Jessica Quinlan graduated from UWM, the job market was bleak. It was 2010 and she had just finished her major in Conservation and Environmental Science. At the height of the recession, few if any nonprofits and local governments were hiring full-time.

She scraped by with part-time parks and forestry jobs in Milwaukee County, Oconomowoc, and Muskego, all while continuing her college job as a cashier at Kohl’s department stores. But, when Kohl’s offered her a full-time position with a salary and benefits as an assistant store manager, Quinlan had a choice to make: Did she pursue her passion in environmental science, or take the job that offered great stability?

Kohl’s made the decision easier.

“I knew that Kohl’s had a sustainability team at the corporate office, and I knew that they had a strong volunteer program in place where I could leverage that to continue supporting the parks through Kohl’s volunteer hours and Kohl’s donations,” Quinlan said.

Her choice paid off; after a few years as an assistant store manager, Kohl’s corporate headquarters had a rare opening on its sustainability team.

“I was able to leverage my store experience with my background and expertise in environmental science, and they were happy to have me,” Quinlan said.

She began in her new role with the company’s environmental compliance team, eventually transitioning to her current job as a Sustainability and ESG (Environment, Sustainability, and Governance) Coordinator.

A sustainable role

All large businesses and corporations – due to their size and scope – have the potential to make a significant impact on the environment. In recent years, public opinion has shifted towards demanding that businesses work to be part of the solution for a greener future.

At Kohl’s, that’s the job of Quinlan and the rest of the Sustainability Team at the company’s headquarters in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. The Sustainability Team not only handles compliance – ensuring that stores can comply with regional and national environmental regulations – but also ESG standards. Those are a set of criteria that investors, customers, and even employees look for a company to abide by when it comes to environmental and social responsibility.

“We focus on three key areas: Climate, Waste and Recycling, and Sustainable Sourcing (of Kohl’s products),” Quinlan explained. “We have over 1,100 stores in 49 states. Every store is expected to implement the sustainability programs that we have in place. … It’s a big company, but it’s really rewarding because you can have a big impact.”

Quinlan in particular works with ESG rating agencies to pinpoint areas where Kohl’s can implement new programs or establish best practices to reduce its environmental footprint.

“We have many different teams that impact sustainability, and I get to bring back my ESG research and say, hey, if we want to move the needle in this area or that area, here are some steps we could take,” Quinlan said.

She also collaborates with other companies to share sustainability goals and best practices.

Finally, “The other part of my job is I try to build awareness about all of the great things Kohl’s is doing in the sustainability space. How can we continue to amplify our story publicly?” Quinlan said.

“I draft a lot of communication for our corporate website. I’m heavily involved in writing our annual ESG report which details all of our programs around environmental and social sustainability … and also shows the progress that we make in these areas each year,” she added.

Corporations and conservation

The idea of corporate responsibility is gaining traction as part of the effort to reduce the impact of climate change. Quinlan notes that Kohl’s has had its Sustainability Team in place for the last decade and has long had a commitment to being a responsible business.

Responsibility varies from industry to industry, she noted. Retailers like Kohl’s might find ways to eliminate plastic in their packaging or find new ways to sustainably source its products, whereas a restaurant might focus on eliminating food waste.

Quinlan is proud of the work she does at Kohl’s, but she’s the first to admit that she didn’t set out to work in the private sector.

“I thought about becoming a forester,” she said with a laugh. “But, I’m really glad everything worked out the way that it did.”

“I think that anyone who has a degree in Conservation and Environmental Science can use it in a lot of different ways,” Quinlan added. “I see myself at Kohl’s for many years to come. I’m really proud to be working for a company that’s so deeply committed to sustainability.”

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science