Leading the charge

Features - Interview

Landscape contractors can take the lead on issues of sustainability and show consumers that the green industry really is green.

April 13, 2010

Bradbury-HuangHilary Bradbury Huang has worked closely with companies like BP, Ford, Nike and Waste Management to help them make their operations more sustainable through an approach called action research. Huang, a research associate professor at the University of Southern California and director of sustainable business research at the USC Center for Sustainable Cities, was the facilitator for PLANET’s most recent Crystal Ball report, “Green Industry ECOnomics: Innovating Toward a Sustainable and Profitable Future,” which focuses on how contractors can jump on the trend and make it a viable business opportunity.

She recently sat down with Lawn & Landscape to talk about the business of sustainability, the future of urban green spaces and how landscape contractors need to lead the way.

Tell me more about action research.
Action research is an orientation to doing research with the people who are interested in seeing the results. It’s not a research about people as much as it is with people. As we move toward increasing natural resource problems and so on, how do we deal with that? People have to understand what they’re up against and then become active each in their own little domain, so that all those little domains can add up to some kind of significant change. It depends where you’re situated: President Obama is the president, and his sustainability strategy works on one level. For others working in a more local context, you work basically where you can. The work needs to hook up with other people and other levels so there’s some alignment growing about the effort.

How do you merge action research and sustainability?
It always means doing work inside your corporation, usually creating some niche program or niche product that is more environmentally sustainable, that’s more socially sustainable. To pull that off, you usually have to connect with like-minded people in another company so you have the resources or the input so what you’re actually creating in your company is even being created with more sustainable resources.

On the other side, if things are to be recycled, you’ve got to connect with recycling folks so you have stuff coming back to you. So, you’re always having to connect outside of your organization, you’re always having to be involved with different stakeholders, because no one organization can be sustainable. Today, no one organization is sustainable, but no one organization actually can be sustainable on its own, because it sits inside a whole supply chain. I can’t pretend to be green if the materials or the way that things come to my company are entirely unsustainable.

How can a small to mid-size business use this approach to improve their company?
I would call it more of a participative approach. How might they involve stakeholders in the work that they’re doing?
If we think of a small landscaper – say the guy who comes to do my yard, my native garden. The way to bill a client who wants to go native is different from the way you normally bill. A native garden doesn’t need weekly tending, but it needs seasonal tending, and then the work of cutting back the shrubs is much bigger than it is in a conventional garden. You’re making the same amount of money over the period of a year, but the work is much more intensive at times, and then you’re basically not seeing your client all that often. So when you actually show up, you have to be in more conversation with the client about what it is they need, what are they seeing, how much should we cut back here? What plants have done well, which need to be taken out?

It’s much more of a relationship with the customer. Much more knowledge is required about what can actually grow and what can’t grow. There has to be more education as to what services and products you can actually use.

Tell me more about the work you do with cities.
Cities are very much about place and space, very specifically. I bring more of a business and management orientation to the work. Businesses are in cities and also global. When you work at the city level, you’re pretty much talking about your city. In L.A. County, we’re talking about 84 cities, so working on that project, for example, we kept in mind that the city is huge, and how do we involve the different ethnicities. We sampled six different alleys in different parts of LA to pick up the ethnic diversity, keeping in mind that if this is to succeed, we have to involve the political stakeholders.

Having the ear of various local politicians was important. And then making sure all the stakeholders are involved so that the findings can actually bring about some change. Nobody changes when you give them a whitepaper, but if they’ve been involved in the decision making process, and they can begin to see some of the advantages of doing things a little differently and they become a bit more mobilized.

How do you see American cities and their green spaces changing in the next 10 or 20 years?
My vision is that we’ll be going back to urban density for two reasons: One, we can see in the downturn of housing prices what really got hit were those places that were un-dense. They were the suburban places essentially too far away from jobs and other kinds of infrastructure. In L.A. County, for example, some value of 50 percent has been lost in those areas. Whereas in other areas where there is still density and you have access to jobs, to public transport, housing has hardly lost any value.

So, that might itself suggest to us a way to go forward. However, if things bounce back, and people go, ‘Oh, this is great. Let’s get back in our cars and drive out to surburbia,’ then that’ll be the way it goes.

From my point of view, from a sustainability point of view, green urban density  is better. It’s better to preserve habitat, because you’re not building on it out in the suburbs. It then also allows people to be closer to the kind of services that they need, so they’re not always reliant on their cars. We want to begin to move toward a more healthy way of living.

How does the landscape factor into the health of cities and their residents?
It’s incredibly important. During the Communist Revolution, Mao declared war on all flowers and all grass. It seems to me, then, in some way, that green landscaping represents democracy, it represents a sustainable, healthy world.
They call them the green leafy suburbs; housing prices where it’s green and leafy are higher. I’ve done work in Oakland, which is a really crime-ridden, drug-infested city, where some civil society organizations have taken it upon themselves to plant trees and then studied the effect that these trees have on neighborhoods. And sure enough, crime begins to go down, people begin to have more ownership over the space, people come to the stores on the tree-lined streets. I think landscaping is incredibly important.

Then, from the sustainability aspect, I understand that the green cell – the chlorophyll – is essentially the net generator of quality on planet Earth. Without the green cell, animals don’t live. If we can get that as a society, the landscaping industry, which has not positioned itself as well as it could, is in a place of enormous positive benefit to society if it will play its role as an active agent toward a more sustainable, healthy world. But to do that, the industry needs to educate itself about the requirements of sustainability.

How you transition from cookie-cutter, heavy duty chemical application to a more sustainable landscape is something we need the landscapers to figure out. Issues of reducing toxicity where water is important, moving to more native or drought-resistant types of lawns, these are really crucial issues, and I think landscapers need to be partners in figuring that out. And be very careful not to fight against these issues, because they will then be positioned as not being helpful. You can’t fight drought; you’ve got to work with what drought demands of us. How do we have the principles of beauty and health – all the things that the landscaping industry stands for regardless of the conditions in which they have to happen – so it’s really a matter of working with those conditions to bring about beauty and health.

I do know in other industries it has been done. Look at the car industry. When the Prius first came out, years ago, I sat in meetings with Ford and Chrysler and their attitude was, “This kind of crap will never sell, because people want SUVs.” And then you look at what happened. To me, it was obvious that this was going to happen, because there’s a limit to how much carbon intensity we can afford as a society. And indeed, people have begun to demand more fuel-efficient cars. 

I think it’s about seeing the obvious that resources are dwindling, and how do we live according to that? And being in front of that, rather than fighting it. There’s no point in fighting these things. You cannot fight the laws of physics.
It is important for all businesses to think about niche strategies. You can’t just say, ‘We’re going to go whole hog green tomorrow. I don’t care what my customers think.’ Nobody would do that, that’s stupid. To not think about having a niche and to not develop that, knowing and understanding that, literally, physics demands that we think about drought differently, that we think about toxicity differently. How do I get ahead of that, rather than being like an ostrich thinking it’s not going to happen, because it is going to happen.

How would you respond to claims that sustainability is hard to profit from?
Leadership is understanding what needs to happen and making it happen. It’s a rather tough medicine, but there you go. That’s what being a leader is. Sitting around and bellyaching about how difficult this is is not being a leader. The implication that if it’s too tough, we’re not going to do it is fundamentally a misunderstanding about what’s at stake here. What’s at stake is whether or not as a society we’re going to be healthy. Quite honestly, the medicine is: Figure it out.

One of the best strategies is having a niche approach. I’m a great believer in experiments to figure out what can work. I don’t like to give advice in places I don’t know much about. How do we replace the leaf blower? There’s new technology. Get connected to where the new technology is going and you have to talk to your customers about increasing rates, very difficult to do, but that could be a last-case scenario. Do you partner with cities and get onto a preferred list of gardeners? Do you talk to people about willingness to use brooms some of the time. I don’t know, but there have to be many ways of addressing it.

It can’t be just about one piece of technology, your leaf blower. It has to be a part of your whole service. And much more serious is the design and layout and the components of a garden. If those are full of toxicity, and using more water than is necessary, which is absolutely the case in our area – 80 percent gets sprinkled on lawns, there’s the crisis issue, not the leaf blower. It moves you into a different relationship with the clients.

Maybe it’s a bit too radical, but that’s what creative destruction is like in industries.

Any final thoughts?
Just to underscore how important I think the landscaping industry is as a whole, and how I have, to date, missed their leadership about many of these issues. I think they could really position themselves as leaders in communities on these issues and everybody would see the benefit of that. It’s a pretty clear benefit: a greener, healthier, more beautiful world. What’s not to like?

What are you doing?

The July issue of Lawn & Landscape will focus on sustainability, and what contractors are doing to profit from it. What are you doing in your company to operate more sustainably? Are your customers asking more ‘green’ questions? How do you answer them?

Send your stories or marketing ideas to Managing Editor Chuck Bowen at cbowen@gie.net or call 330-523-5330 and you could be included in the issue.