Syllabus: If Products Could Tell Their Stories

Phase 1: If Products Could Tell Their Stories, To Whom Would They Speak?

1. Intro: Towards a Sustainable Model of Product Design

Discussion: Intro to Life Cycle Awareness and Life Cycle Assessment Tools, and intro to sustainable product/service development

Readings: The Okala Guide, Modules 9, 10, 11, pp. 28-37.
Shaping Things, Chapters 1-6, pp. 1-54.

Assignment due next class: Choose one product and evaluate a published, peer-reviewed Life Cycle Assessment or Analysis, for discussion in the next class. What were the system boundaries chosen by the authors of the study? What life cycle stage had the greatest impact?

2: Audience: Consumers

Discussion: Opportunities and limits to the “Vote with your wallet” theories of sustaining a consumer-led green movement. The use of anthropological inquiry to understand gaps between what consumers say they want and how they behave.

Reading: Shopping our Way to Safety. Part II: Assembling a Personal Commodity Bubble for One’s Body, Chapters 3, 4, 5, pp. 97 – 168.

Assignment due next class: Interview a consumer who self-identifies as “green,” to determine their stated motivations, and actual behavior in selecting and using green products. Prepare a one page report of your findings.

3: Audience: Citizen Activists, NGOs, Workers

Discussion: Other stakeholders involved in the creation of products and services have had a significant impact on product safety and environmental regulation.

Readings: The Okala Guide. Module 6: Meeting Stakeholder Needs, pp. 26-27.
Shopping Our Way to Safety. Part III: Consequences of Inverted Quarantine. Chapters 6, 7, and Conclusion, pp. 169-238.

Assignment due next class: Review an existing NGO or activist campaign that used tech-enabled community organizing to discuss in the next class.


4: Audience: Government – Legislators and Regulatory Bodies

Discussion: US Political appetite for regulation in all forms is increasing, in response to product recalls of toys, pet food, baby formula, and collateralized debt obligations. We will discuss the differing philosophy between recent politically conservative approaches to regulation and the European philosophy of the Precautionary Principle.

Reading: Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power. Chapter 1: Soft Power, Hard Edge. Chapter 4: Two Houses of Risk, pp. 1-19, 67-82.
Assignment due next class: Develop initial ideas of product or service systems you would like to explore, to present in class.

5: Business: CEOs, Product Managers, Purchasing Managers, Designers, Marketers, Clients

Discussion: We will identify the most powerful decision makers within an organization, from top level executives to designers to marketers to product managers. We will also review core tenets of the environmental business movement – from Natural Capitalism to the Triple Bottom Line.

Assignment: Write a one page proposal outlining the commercial benefits of your product/service idea.

6. Product/Service Ideation.

Discussion: We will conduct a Life Cycle Awareness brainstorm session, to define known system boundaries, and identify areas for innovation.

Reading: Shaping Things, Chapters 7-12, pp. 55-94.

Assignment: Group formulation. Work with group and identify and investigate specific product/service idea, outline system boundaries and determine life cycle impacts to explore.

PHASE II: If Products Could Tell Their Stories, What Would They Say?

7. Environmental Impacts. Ecological Damage- focus on Energy Emissions.

Discussion: Much of the political and media focus of the environmental crisis is focused on climate change, and on the impacts of energy emissions. We will explore the relevancy of prioritizing energy emissions in our understanding of sustainability.

Reading: The Okala Guide, Learning Eco Design. Modules 13-16, pp. 41-58.

Shaping Things, Chapters 13-18, pp. 95-145.

Assignment: identify the ecological impacts of your product/service system concept, and develop alternative strategies to reduce this impact.

8. Environmental Impacts. Human Health Impacts.

Discussion: One of the primary motivators to consumer behavior change, and NGO action, has been a focus on toxic ingredients and the desire to protect one’s personal health from human health impacts. We will identify the full life cycle implications of product development, including damage to the health of workers, and people that live in communities close to factories and recycling/disposal centers across the world.

Reading: Cradle to Cradle, Introduction, Chapters 1-2, pp. 3-67.

Assignment due for final project: Identify the human health impacts of your product/service system, and develop alternative strategies to reduce this impact, and communicate these impacts.

9: Environmental Impacts. Resource Depletion, BioDiversity

Discussion: The impact of environmental degradation on the earths resources and species gets the least attention from mainstream media, regulators, and business innovators. We will review the potential environmental impacts for those stakeholders without a voice, from the biodiversity of species to the global water supply.

Reading: Cradle to Cradle, Chapters 4-5, pp. 92-156.

Assignment due for final project: Identify the resource depletion and biodiversity impacts of your product/service system, and develop alternative strategies to reduce this impact, and communicate these impacts.

10: Social and Economic Impacts: Workers, Cultural Diversity, and Fair Trade, and Investment.

Discussion: One of the weaknesses of the LCA method is that they omit the social impacts throughout the product development process, because the impact to workers and local community members, beyond human health, is hard to quantify. We will discuss a framework for exploring the social sustainability of product/service systems.

Reading: Cradle to Cradle, Chapters 6, pp. 157-186

Assignment due for final project: Identify the social impacts your product/service system concept, and develop alternative strategies to reduce this impact, and communicate these impacts.

11: Final Project Presentations

12: Final Project Presentations

Selected course readings:
McDonough, Michael, Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the Way We Make Things. North Point Press, 2002.

Sterling, Bruce, Shaping Things, MIT Press, 2005.

Shapiro, Mark, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007.

White, St. Pierre and Belletire, The Okala Guide. Coursework on Life Cycle Analysis, IDSA, 2007.