The American Lawn Thrives Anew with Sustainable Maintenance
As the weather warms up, my thoughts turn to the days ahead when the grass will grow green and long. Like many, I love the smell of freshly mown grass. However, increasing societal concerns about the environmental impact of all these lovely lawns makes me wonder about the future of lawns and lawn care, specifically the opportunity for the growth of electric lawnmowers. The topic is a good example of how innovation strategy consulting can revolutionize an industry.
Understanding the demand for electric lawnmowers includes three interlocking components. In an innovation strategy consulting engagement, a firm would start with:
- Consumer Attitudes: How many lawns will there be to mow? What is the future of lawns in the US given the changes in consumer attitudes toward lawns?
- Competitors: What will consumers use to mow these lawns? How do benefits compare between electric lawnmowers and its main competition, gas lawnmowers?
- Government Regulations: What government regulations will change lawn ownership and lawn equipment activities? What are the future regulations of lawns – water, lawn equipment impact on the environment?
Innovation Strategy Consulting: The History of Lawns
Understanding the timeline of consumer demand is an important element of innovation strategy consulting. Lawns began as a display of wealth. The creation and maintenance of a lawn required a great many resources, including seed, water, fertilizer and keeping the grass at a respectable and uniform height. In the 18th century, large spaces of closely-cropped turf grass began to appear in French and English landscaping of the wealthy (think Pemberley and Rosings Park from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.) Thomas Jefferson was one of the first to bring this aesthetic to America, with the creation of a lawn at Monticello.
Like automobile technology today, lawn ownership trickled down from the wealthy to the working class.
- Affluent Americans desired to show off their wealth, and an expensive lawn was a perfect place to do just that.
- Lawns began to catch on for the middle class after the Civil War, particularly the front lawn. Previously, a small flower garden decorated the front of the house, and the yard was in the back.
- The working class embraced the front lawn ethos with the growth of the low-cost housing projects that popped up after WWII.
Innovation Strategy Consulting: Sizing Up the Landscape
The US has about 1.9 billion acres of land in the contiguous 48 states. In 2005 (the latest data that includes an estimate of lawn acreage), total lawn acreage was estimated at 40M acres, or about 2% of the US footprint, far behind the acreage in more useful purposes like food production or forested land. Still, that is a lot of blades of grass.
|Livestock grazing & crops
|Crops (for humans)
|Other area like deserts, marshes, etc.
For further perspective, assuming that the lawn acreage has not changed since 2005, lawns would be the fifth largest crop by planted acres in the US in 2021. Again, that is a lot of grass.
|2021 Planted Acres (M)
|1. Grass (Hay)
|6. Mixed forage
Source: USDA, Farm Service Agency
Innovation Strategy Consulting: Consumer Attitudes Toward Lawns
Consumer attitudes have changed from viewing the lawn as a sign of wealth to concern about its negative impact on the environment. Understanding that shift is key to innovation strategy consulting.
Of special concern is the amount of water used in areas of the country experiencing both drought and a high demand for water for agriculture and human consumption. Particularly in these areas, the impact of watering a lawn is significant:
- A 1,500 sq. ft. lawn in LA needs about 43,000 gallons a year, compared with the average human consumption of 19,000 gallons per year
And, consumers are willing to make changes
- In Arizona, homeowners are allowing the grass to die, and then having it professionally painted green. Costs in the Phoenix for the average homeowner range from $250 to $350, which is considerably less than the cost of the water needed to keep the grass growing (Numlock News, 3-21-23)
Innovation Strategy Consulting: Let’s Find New Solutions
Consumers who don’t want to paint their lawns green may seek different solutions. And lawnmower companies have likely worked with innovation strategy consulting firms on one such option: the electric lawnmower.
The electric lawnmower has come a long way in competing with its gas-powered cousin on the benefits that consumers care about:
- environmental impact
Innovation Strategy Consulting: Identify the Customers
Whether you are buying a lawnmower for residential or commercial use, the cost of lifetime ownership is important.
- Consumer Reports in 2017 estimated a $20 per year operating savings for electric, along with a $200 higher initial cost, giving it a 10 year payback time. For the residential buyer, there is little cost of ownership difference. Lower pollution and noise will have to be enough of a reward.
- However, commercial buyers have a different experience with the lifetime cost of ownership, with electric costing significantly less than gas. For example, MeanGreen™ Electric Mowers’ operating cost saving estimates range from $4,160 to $15,600 per year, depending on the model. That savings quickly outpaces the additional upfront cost of the electric mower.
Innovation Strategy Consulting: Competitive Analysis
If the main competitor for electric lawnmowers are gas-powered mowers, then an innovation strategy consulting endeavor would need to compare the relative benefits and weaknesses of both.
Of course, an electric version isn’t worth it if the lawnmower doesn’t do a good job. While the first electric mowers lacked the power needed for even the average yard, by 2017, Consumer Reports were recommending them in an article entitled “Electric Lawn Mowers That Rival Gas Models,” which pretty much says it all.
Electric lawnmowers produce significantly less emissions and pollution than gas-powered ones:
“Emissions from gas powered lawn equipment accounted for 43% of the US volatile organic compound emissions and 12% of the of the carbon monoxide emissions as of 2011.”(Numlock News, 10-3-22)
Pollution from gas powered lawn equipment is substantial.
“…by 2020, gas powered leaf blowers, lawn mowers and other two-stroke equipment will produce more ozone pollution than every other car in California combined.”(Numlock News, 3-11-19)
The EPA estimates that over 17 million gallons of gas are spilled each year refilling gas-powered lawn equipment.
Gas powered lawnmowers produce between 90 and 105 decibels of noise, which can seriously harm human hearing.
But, not everything is rosy for the electric lawnmower, as the lithium-ion battery has several large negative environmental impacts:
- Mining of lithium destroys fragile ecosystems
- The battery contains toxins, like lithium hexafluorophosphate, cobalt, nickel and manganese
- Large-scale lithium ion battery recycling is not yet available, so only about 5% of batteries are currently recycled as of 2019 (Chemical and Engineering News, 2019)
Innovation Strategy Consulting: Government Regulations of Lawns
Primarily, two types of government regulations have been proposed and passed concerning lawns and lawn equipment. The first helps the demand for electric lawn equipment by banning new sales of gas-powered equipment, and the second depresses demand by eliminating grass lawns.
A Positive for Electric Lawnmowers
- While the bill did not pass in the end, legislators in Colorado introduced a law in 2022 to ban the sale of gas-powered lawn equipment in many parts of Colorado and provide rebates for the purchase of electric equipment
- Several states (including Washington and Minnesota) are offering funds to restore and expand parks and green spaces
A Negative for Electric Lawnmowers
- Since 2015, many water departments in California offer a “cash for grass” program to replace lawns with desert landscaping that uses less water
- Since 1999, the Southern Nevada Water Authority offers payment for ripping out lawn and putting in local flora. So far, homeowners have replaced 200 million square feet of lawn. (Numlock News, 3-15-22)
- Nevada in 2021 passed a bill that mandated the removal of nonfunctional grass in the Las Vegas Valley by 2027
Innovation Strategy Consulting: Big Brands Invest in Electric
Electric lawnmower demand is the winner with its benefits for the environment and cost savings, while also going head-to-head competitively with gas-powered mowers for performance. The big manufacturers are seeing the writing on the wall. In fall 2022, Honda announced that it will stop producing gas-powered lawnmowers.
Of course, there is one alternative that beats the electric lawnmower on environmental impact, cost to own, and power to get the job done: sheep. BAAAAA! We would love to work on an ovine-related innovation strategy consulting project.