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.

If Products Could Speak

I want to give products a voice. When I look at a pencil, a mop, or a smart phone, I most likely don’t know where in the world these objects came from, what they are made out of, who created them, nor do I know who or what was affected in the making of these things. The more I become aware of the impact that products make on our health, our society, and our ecosystem, the more I want to know the answer to these questions.

Since the start of the industrial revolution, we’ve moved further and further away from the materials, means, and methods of production. While this has been a seemingly inevitable trend of a global, outsourced, flatworld, branded economy, sudden awareness of environmental and social issues has people asking pointed questions about how things are made. I’m curious about the role that technology can play in reconnecting us back to the material process, and in exploring tools and frameworks that give us an understanding of our unique role in impacting product and consumption on a greater scale.

I alone can’t give products a voice – I’ve tried. These are hard stories to tell. They are carefully hidden, secretly guarded, and sometimes the truth is too scary for manufacturers to reveal. Instead, I’ve learned to write about products and greener design methods (Inhabitat and Core77), teach about product lifecycle to designers and product creators (Columbia, Pratt, and ITP at NYU), and help develop communities (online and offline) where people talk directly to companies (Toyota, Nestle), and where designers talk to each other about how they are making things (o2NYC and Designers Accord). I’m always looking for collaborators to help tell these product stories.

Green my Apple, Green my Future

Take a poll on any city street, and you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t admire Apple’s clean, innovative product design. In the past 5 years, with the success of the iPod and power PCs, Mac has come to dominate the high-end consumer electronic space, with their clean, minimalist aesthetic. With such a prestigious design-driven brand, one would think that Apple would be leading the way in the green design revolution. Sadly, this is not the case – Apple is actually lagging behind companies like Dell and HP – and because of this, Greenpeace has spearheaded a creative campaign to green Apple.

Green my Apple

Green my Apple

Greenpeace launched their Green My Apple Campaign in September of 2006, with the claim that Apple products contain unsafe levels of PVC and BFR, toxins known to release carcinogenic dioxins when incinerated. While other companies have responded to Greenpeace’s demand for total transparency in chemical policy reporting, Apple has remained opaque.

In response to Greenpeace’s latest low rating of Apple in its Guide to Green Electronics, Apple spokesperson Sherly Seitz responded: “Apple has a strong environmental track record and has led the industry in restricting and banning toxic substances such as mercury, cadmium and hexavalent chromium, as well as many BFRs,” or brominated flame retardants.

But Apple’s does not publish information about which BFRs remain in their products, or a plan for phasing out PVCs. Which means, they no longer lead the industry, since other manufacturers have set timelines or have phased out these toxins completely. Why does Apple remain silent about its specific environmental plans? Since Apple won’t tell us why, we can only speculate.

One possible reason is that Apple is secretive, carefully planning the launch of each new product, sequestering small design teams to crack the iPod and the upcoming iPhone. Driven by creative CEO Steve Jobs, the company does not design by focus group or committees, but by prototyping their way to an interconnected, brilliantly designed iconic vision. The idea of cowering to a pesky environmental group, and disclosing the material-level reality of their products, is not the way Apple likes to operate.

Our call to Apple goes beyond Greenpeace’s attack. Apple stands for ingenuity. Macs are the power tool for the creative class. Steve Jobs is a business hero, an example of how to thrive in an age of globalization, media fragmentation, and rapid technological change. iTunes alone was a brilliant, green-by-default business model that instantly impacted the production of polluting CDs and DVDs.

Apple, we know you can point the way. Leapfrog your current position to lead the design and tech industry in this next wave of the green business revolution. We’re keeping the faith.

Read more: GREEN MY APPLE, GREEN MY FUTURE | Inhabitat – Sustainable Design Innovation, Eco Architecture, Green Building

Read more: GREEN MY APPLE, GREEN MY FUTURE | Inhabitat – Sustainable Design Innovation, Eco Architecture, Green Building