Become a believer

Features - Sustainability

Practicing what you preach makes all the difference in selling sustainability

February 22, 2010
Kelly Pickerel

Pacific Landscape Management has found a way to make sustainability pay. Here, a green roof the company maintains in Portland, Ore.Chemicals, pesticides, fertilizers – consumers don’t always lump into the same category as green or sustainability. But Bob Grover is trying to change that.

As president of Pacific Landscape Management, Grover has been making strides to bring a greener awareness to the greater Portland, Ore., area. His company mainly focuses on commercial renovations and upgrades and introduces sustainability practices to customers along the way.

“I’m a pragmatist,” Grover says. “I want to do the right thing, but I’m not going to cut off my arm to do it. If we can figure out how to modify how we do things and still do them, then we all win. We can still maintain a reasonable quality of life and do it in a more sensitive, less impactful way.”

Grover says most businesses are looking for  a silver bullet when it comes to sustainable changes, but he’s found small changes make a much bigger difference.

“It’s really about a little bit of everything rather than big things,” he says. “We think about the processes. Is there a better method? Can we figure out how to conserve?”

In order to be a leader in sustainability, you also have to be a believer. Pacific Landscape has done a “little bit of everything” at its own headquarters to prove it’s serious about what it’s selling.

Grover’s company, which formed in 2001 and has now grown into a $6.5 million business, decided to be a fanatical recycler – not just of office supplies, but also motor oil and its abundant supply of used fertilizer bags. The company has also managed to reduce its electric bill by 25 percent just by turning off warehouse lights when no one’s in the building.

The company has also done some outdoor experiments: It installed a rain garden off an office downspout and a bioswale (designed to remove silt and filter runoff) in the parking lot. The office now runs entirely on solar power, and has moved to lawn mixtures with clover to reduce the amount of fertilizer needed.

Grover explains that the company puts clover into seed mixes applied to low-visibility areas, and they’ve sold it to a few customers who aren’t obsessed with having a putting green-quality lawn everywhere. 

“We have talked to customers about having lower expectations. It’s not like we just sneak it in,” he says.  “Nobody has accepted it on an entire portion (of their lawn), and we’re not trying to sell it that way.”

An array of solar panels power the company’s offices. The clover mix, the solar panels, the rain garden and bioswale all show customers that Pacific practices what it preaches.

“If we truly believe in sustainability, we need to do everything ourselves,” Grover says. “If we’re going to promote some of these practices, we’re going to do them at our office first. We’re trying to experiment with new procedures at our facility to use it as a demonstration site.”

But Pacific Landscape sometimes has a difficult time winning over commercial customers, even after proving certain practices benefit the environment.

“A true organic program doesn’t really fit well with the commercial mindset of crisp and clean and curb appeal,” Grover says. “We have always struggled with being able to come up with that type of program because there would be increased labor and costs and then (customers) aren’t as interested anymore.” He said a program like that would add 25 percent to his labor costs.

In Grover’s view, sustainability has picked up because his customers’ tenants are looking for it.
“Sometimes the market helps dictate where you go, and if you have customers interested in sustainability, you need to have an answer for that,” he says. “When it becomes popular, everyone needs it. The sustainability culture that has developed is a really great movement because it starts to look at things in the middle instead of black and white.”

Increasingly, companies and consumers have realized that, when it comes to things like chemical use, the best tools for certain situations are sometimes the most traditional. And although Pacific Landscape hasn’t converted to using 100 percent organic products, Grover says they’ve examined their chemical levels and done they best they can to meet somewhere in the middle.

“Forty percent (organic) is a lot better than zero,” he says. “We evaluated how we used herbicides and pesticides, finding the lowest threshold of chemicals.”

Pacific Landscape has also started promoting water saving technologies to its customers, including weather-based irrigation programs. 

“I think we made a really good strategic move,” Grover says of diving into sustainability practices. “We’re finding that with sustainability, we can save people money.

“It’s a process, not a destination. We’re going to continually make improvements to reduce our impact. It means you are making an effort and it gets better every year.”

The author is an intern at Lawn & Landscape magazine. Send your comments to