June, 2024

Sustainability is Innovation’s New Frontier

by Bruce Wilson

I have long been a fan of sustainable landscaping, smart land use and smarter ways to use water. I’ve loved the outdoors since I was a farm kid in upstate New York, never dreaming it would evolve into one of the greatest opportunities in my life when I joined the green industry out of Cornell. I still love the science and practice of horticulture — cultivating plants, growing vegetables and taking care of my fruit orchard. I’ve been slower to come to grips with sustainability as a profit driver in landscaping because the topic can be full of contradictions, and contradictions are tough to quantify.

My landscape career started during the 1970s oil crisis, with fuel shortages and gasoline rationing a defining moment for conversations around the responsible use of energy and the built environment. While we understood visionary efforts to integrate environmental concerns into our business strategies at that time and knew it was the right thing to do, it was not easy becoming green.

Today, I’m seeing around the country and throughout our industry that sustainability has advocacy. It’s no longer a cost factor but a catalyst for growth. There are opportunities for innovation and scaling up, tax incentives related to renewable energy and ways to offset the costs of transitioning to more sustainable practices.

Manufacturers are under pressure to keep up with demand for differentiating equipment and technologies. Wall Street real estate firms are under pressure from shareholders and investors to report profitable asset growth, and property managers and landscape contractors alike are looking for solutions that can more rapidly become a profit driver.

Not surprisingly, I’m not a fan of extreme measures, like banning fossil fuels. I have always taken the “either-and” approach rather than “either-or” and believe the answer lies in looking at sustainability as an opportunity to capture a larger share of the market.

I recently attended the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Associations’ annual meeting in Las Vegas, where I learned about forward-looking scenarios in next generation electric, hydroponic irrigation systems, green technologies, turf management, artificial intelligence — and multiple eco-friendly drawing board ideas that will enable landscape contractors, irrigation managers, golf course superintendents and athletic field managers to lower costs, reduce inputs, conserve water and generate additional revenue.

Research in all areas of sustainability is certain to improve what landscape companies can do to be more climate positive and, like a rising tide, lift all landscape businesses to be faster and smarter competitors. But getting there from here is no easy fix.

For innovation to thrive, it needs company leadership willing to introduce new ways to think about how the resources landscape contractors confront every day — energy, carbon, water, plants, minerals and waste — are managed, a commitment to identify key areas for improvement and an aligned culture that values ideas and continuous learning. Because taking unfamiliar steps can be a leap of faith, it’s tempting to wait and see how some newer things play out, watch other companies take the first step or wait for mandates. But in reality, given the massive transformation already underway, failure to establish meaningful targets and take action can put organizations on a path of increasing irrelevancy.

This June, a super smart generation of graduates will be seeking careers that give them a chance to be directly involved in being relevant. With innovation a key factor in the escalating war for talent, landscape companies that ignore the potential of sustainability to reshape the hiring landscape will miss out. Although more needs to be done to make people aware of the positive role landscape companies play in creating healthy green spaces, landscaping companies that are invested in making sustainability and innovation mission critical will find their door open to a wave of high-value candidates ready to help our industry fuel a more sustainable future.

Words of Wilson features a rotating panel of consultants from Wilson360, a landscape consulting firm. Bruce Wilson is the Founder and chairman of Wilson360 (formerly Bruce Wilson & Co. He can be reached at bruce@wilson-360.com

Reprinted with permission. GIE Media. Lawn & Landscape June 2024 (c)