Introducing Students to a Product’s Lifecycle

Lifeycle of Milk completed by Ahmed Amlani during his coursework at SFU's Beedie School of Business
Lifeycle of Milk completed by Ahmed Amlani during his coursework at SFU’s Beedie School of Business

There are many different ways to embed sustainability into the classroom. In this new series of blogs, I will share examples of assignments used by faculty around the world to really get students thinking about these topics.

This first Sustainable Business Assignment is courtesy of Stephanie Bertels, assistant professor at Beedie School of Business, who has been using it with her students at Simon Fraser University in Canada for several years now. The assignment is used in the business school’s operations class and takes place over several weeks.

Describe the Life Cycle Project

As the first assignment of my sustainable operations class, I ask students to conduct a lifecycle assessment on a simple product. I ask each student to select a different product, ideally something of interest that would be helpful to him/her going out into the job market. This provides a nice opportunity to chat with students about what industries and companies interest them and to get them thinking about how sustainability might connect to their future careers. For instance, a student interested in fashion might pick blue jeans or a t-shirt. A student wanting to work in the mining industry might select aluminum foil. The key is to pick a product that is not too complicated.

Once they have selected the product, what do they need to do?

Students are asked to select an item for which they must prepare a lifecycle diagram that outlines the key environmental and social aspects of this product’s full lifecycle. They are asked to produce a report that would be useful both for the company’s senior executives and the product design team. The focus should be on identifying the pathways, knowing what needs to be quantified, and getting a sense of where to target improvements to the sustainability of the product.

The students are asked to support their analyses using external sources, but they are not required to conduct detailed calculations. If they come across quantities or comparisons, I encourage their inclusion in order to illustrate the key choices along the lifecycle, but it’s not necessary to quantify all impacts. It is necessary to demonstrate where they’re getting the information about the process and the potential impacts.

In the first week, I break the students into groups and invite them up to the board to draw the lifecycle of different forks (stainless steel, plastic, bioplastic, compostable, and wood forks). This lets me preview concepts like closed loops, embedded energy, consumer use and reuse, barriers to recycling, transportation impacts, a living wage, and design for disassembly.

The following week, the students are asked to come prepared to draw their lifecycle on the board. We’ll discuss them in class, and this gives us a chance to surface issues about boundaries and push the students to start thinking about which issues are most ‘material’ to address. In this class, I show lots of short videos on how things are made and explain how a recycling facility works or how glass gets recycled. I also link this to a class discussion on planetary boundaries and social floors.

Their final report needs to include a drawing of the lifecycle of the product, identify and justify the key impacts, and make recommendations for next steps for how to improve the sustainability of the product.

Any tips for other faculty thinking of doing something similar?

I find the assignment can seem ambiguous at first and that some business students can be a bit afraid of the science. I try to reassure them that they don’t need to dig into the chemical formulas; instead I’m looking for them to map out the complexity of the system and get a feel for the trade-offs in the system. Having them put up the first version of their lifecycles on the board to get feedback from their peers and from me has proven to be an important step along the way.

What is your favourite part of this assignment?

Students have told me that this assignment really gets them looking at the world differently. One summer, I had an email from a student that said, “I’m in a shoe store and trying to work through the lifecycles of two different shoes.” About 15 minutes later, I got another that said, “In the end, I decided I probably don’t need more shoes.”



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