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REM 100: Product Life-cycle Analysis Assignment

Start here to find resources for your first assignment for REM 100: an analysis of the environmental and social impacts created by the production, use and disposal of a typical consumer product.

If you need help, please contact Jenna Walsh, Indigenous Initiatives Librarian & Librarian for First Nations Studies, Archaeology, Environmental Science, and Resource & Environmental Management at 778.782.9378 or jmwalsh@sfu.ca or Ask a librarian.

Tip #1 Avoid panic: Start early!

The research for this assignment can be complex.

  • Use a variety of information sources to find complete information on all stages of your product life cycle
  • You may have to adapt information you've found for a similar product because no information about your product exists
  • Spend time considering the environmental and social impacts at all stages and research these to get details
  • You may investigate sustainable alternatives to damaging practises in the production, distribution, use or disposal of your product
  • Pull all your research findings together to provide a coherent analysis

Preparing to research

Review the assignment

Start by reading your assignment thoroughly to make sure you understand what you're being asked to do.

To do a lifecycle analysis for a typical consumer product, you need to investigate the inputs and outputs at each step in the process:

  • What materials the product is made of
  • How these are created (grown or manufactured)
  • Costs of energy in the development and transportation of the product to market
  • Waste products created in the production and consumption of the product; e.g., packaging
  • Any other aspect of the production, distribution, consumption of the product that has an environmental or social impact

Tip #2: Introductory and overview information:

Select a consumer product

Choose a product that is not too complex. Investigation of a product like a car or a MP3 player may not be manageable in the time available.

TEST your choice by searching for information about it, perhaps starting with the overview sources below. There is no shortage of literature about the environmental and social impacts of consumer products. However, if you don't find much material on your first choice, consider choosing something else.

Tip #3: Proprietary versus generic products

  • DO NOT select proprietary products such as Styrofoam or Coca Cola. Manufacturing processes and ingredients are often kept secret, to maintain a competitive advantage.
  • Choose something generic, e.g. pop or cola drinks rather than Coca Cola, to give you more scope for your investigations.

Identify known facts and questions

Once you've selected a product, spend a few minutes making notes on what you already know about it, the component parts (if any), and information gaps that you need to fill.

For example, if I chose denim blue jeans as my consumer product, what I already know is:

  • The raw material components are denim cloth dyed blue, metal zipper and button closure, and thread.
  • Denim is cotton that's manufactured at textile mills and then sent to blue jeans manufacturers to be made in garments.
  • These jeans are then distributed to retailers across the country for consumers to purchase.
  • Consumers use these products and then discard them, either to a charity or via their municipal waste system.

Questions that I need to answer through my research include:

  • Where is cotton grown? What are the environmental and social impacts of the agricultural process (resource in-puts, by-products)? Use of pesticides? Effects of monoculture cropping? Soil degradation?
  • Where are denim textile mills? What's the process of taking the cotton and turning it into cloth, particularly denim cloth?
  • Is there anything environmentally significant about the dyeing process?
  • What kind of energy is used and what kind of waste produced in the manufacturing process? Can these be mitigated?
  • Where are the clothing manufacturers who produce denim jeans? What does this process involve? Sweatshop labour?
  • How do these products get to market? Are there impacts from the selling or use of jeans that are significant to my analysis?
  • How long do jeans last? Can they be recycled or re-used?
  • Are there damaging substances released into the environment as the product breaks down?
 

Tip #4: Keep track of your sources

As you conduct your research, it's helpful to keep a research diary to track both your question and the research sources that provide answers. You will also need to keep track of the information sources that you use for your analysis so that you can reference them in your paper and include them in your bibliography. 

Please see the our Citation Guide: APA . This guide outlines APA format and gives examples for citing frequently used source types, in both the text and the reference list.

Consider using Citation Management Software. It can help you collect your citations, store them for future reference, organize them into groups, and generate bibliographies.

It's important that you understand and avoid plagiarism. Take our brief plagiarism tutorial.

Research process: Overview, background, and reference sources

Tip #5: Start with overview and background sources

You absolutely want to check out the sources listed below, probably near the beginning of your research.

The following reference sources are especially useful as introductions to your consumer product. Many are online and many others are in print -- in the physical library. 

Look for the name of the product or the process used. If you don't find anything under this term, try to find synonyms. (With print books, check the index at the back of the book to see if they've used other terminology.)

General encyclopedias

Cross-disciplinary and general encyclopedias are an excellent place to start for background on a topic in any subject area, and for generating key words for database searching.

Subject-specific encyclopedias

McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science & Technology (print)
A twenty-volume encyclopedia with explanations of technical subjects, especially for electronics.

Encyclopedia of Products & Industries - Manufacturing. (2008)
Manufacturing processes for 120 product categories, including information on the industrial context and distribution.

Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability [print]
Especially volume 4 (Natural resources and Sustainability) and volume 2 (the Business of Sustainability).

How Products Are Made: An Illustrated Guide to Product Manufacturing
Manufacturing process of a wide variety of products, aimed at a general audience; check the sources cited at the end of the article for further information.

Other overview and background sources

The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard. -- a 20 min. animated presentation about extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal. With annotated scripts that include extensive references.

Household products database (US National Institute of Health)
Useful to research products based on chemical ingredients

In the Library Catalogue, use keywords to find online and print books on products and consumer goods. 

Recommended books (online and print)

Kirk Othmer encyclopedia of chemical technology (print)
Manufacturing processes for chemically derived products.

Chemical formulary (print)
Generic formulas for products such as detergents, cosmetics, paint, etc.

Dictionary of plants used by man (print)
Includes information on cultivation techniques, where specific products are cultivated.

Oxford companion to food (print]

Foods & nutrition encyclopedia (print)

Encyclopedia of food sciences and nutrition (online and print]

World agriculture and the environment: a commodity-by-commodity guide to impacts and practices

Finding more books with advanced subject searching

To search for books by subject heading, use the Browse Search option in the SFU Library Catalogue, then select Subject browse from the drop-down menu. For example:

For strategies to find more subject headings, see the Library Catalogue search guide.

​Further campus resources: SFUPIRG and Rotunda Libraries

You may also wish to consult the books and magazines located in the offices of the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group (aka SF PIRG). Consult the Rotunda Libraries Catalogue

SFP!RG is a student organization dedicated to working for social and environmental change.

Research process: In-depth sources

Finding books

To find books that discuss aspects of your product analysis, search the SFU Library catalogue.

Use the generic name of your product, components of your product, or the specific industry as a Subject or a Keyword search. 

For example, if you do a life cycle analysis on blue jeans,

  • Search by Keyword for "blue jeans", "jeans", "denim" or "cotton" to find books with those words anywhere in the record.
  • If you don't find enough results using one specific keyword, search using synonyms or related terminology.
  • To search effectively by Subject, you must identify the specific subject headings used to describe your topic within that source. In the Library catalogue, suitable subject headings might be "Cotton textiles", "Cotton manufacture", "Textile industry", "Cotton textile industry", etc.
  • For more tips, see the see the Library Catalogue search guide.

Tip #6:  Find in-depth sources using the appropriate searches

Start with a Keyword search and look at the subject headings in relevant book's records. 

Specific subject headings are selected according to the topic of the book and assigned to all records that describe books that focus on that topic.

If you find a useful book, you can use the linked subject headings in the catalog record to find additional relevant sources.

If you need help finding suitable words or subject headings for searching, ask a librarian.

Specialized books for environmental impacts

The following list of sources may help you track down some specific types of environmental impact information.

World agriculture and the environment : a commodity-by-commodity guide to impacts and practices [online or print]

Encyclopedia of environmental issues (print)

Encyclopedia of global change: environmental change and human society [online or print]

Water encyclopedia (online or print]
Includes water supply and waste disposal, water quality, and resource development.

Water encyclopedia (print)
Information on environmental problems relating to agriculture, manufacturing.

Encyclopedia of energy [online or print)

The Wiley encyclopedia of energy and the environment (print)
Information on the technology involved in energy production and use as well as environmental impacts, including transportation

Handbook of environmental degradation rates (print)
Lists rates for specific chemical substances.

Finding journal articles 

Journal articles provide you with focused information on a specific topic. For tips and strategies that apply to all topics, use How to find journal articles.

To find articles on your REM 100 topic, start with a keyword search, using the terms "environmental" or "environment" along with the name of the product, product components, or industry. For example, search for "environmental and (coffee or coffee industry)". Or use search terms that discuss specific aspects of your analysis, e.g. "(cotton or textiles) and manufacturing".

Consider using broader, narrower or related concepts as search terms. For example, instead of searching for "social aspects" or "social impact(s)", use words that represent specific social aspects of environmental problems, such as "migration", "health", "economics", "government", etc.

Tip #7 + Tip #8:   Consider all the angles -- and use journal articles

Discipline specific databases will limit your search results to journals in that field, which may not include all the useful perspectives on a topic.

For example, if I'm interested in finding research articles about the toxic effects of pesticides used in growing cotton on human beings, I'm more likely to find articles on this topic in databases that cover agricultural or health journals, rather than a database that covers popular news sources.

Look at the description of the journal database to decide whether it's likely to provide information on your topic and adapt your search strategy accordingly.

Finding journal articles: Recommended databases

Environment Complete
Covers all aspects of the impact of people and technology on the environment, as well as remedial policies and technologies used to address these issues.

GeoBase
Articles from human and physical geography

Agricola
Agriculture and allied disciplines, such as forestry and fisheries. Good for plant-derived products.

Applied Science and Technology Index
Covers a range of journals on applied science and technology topics. Good for information on manufacturing and processing, energy, transportation, etc.

Academic Search Premier
Multidisciplinary database for broad coverage of products.

Business Source Complete
Covers journal articles in all business areas. Good for information on consumer and product information.

ScienceDirect
Searchable collection of over 1700 journals housed on the publisher Elsevier's site.  Scientific articles (mostly fulltext).

GreenFILE
Focusses on the relationship between human beings and the environment.

Alternative Press Index
Alternative and radical views on environmental and other issues. 

Web sources

You can do a general web search for information sources as well, but be sure to consider the source when evaluating the accuracy and completeness of the information.

For example, Goodyear Tire's web site will give you information about the manufacturing of rubber tires, including their efforts to reduce environmental impacts. However, their web site is intended to promote their company and attract investors. Using information from a variety of sources helps to ensure you can provide a critical analysis of the impact of tires on the environment.

Useful information can often be found on sites for activist environmental associations or on web sites for producers of environmentally sound alternatives; e.g., organic cotton producers or hemp clothing manufacturers.

Use the Finding and evaluating resources guide for advanced Google and Google Scholar search tips, as well as strategies for evaluating sources.

TIP #9: Ask for help

You can ask any of the librarians or library staff for assistance. We can provide help with any of the topics covered on this page and more. No question too small or too big!