People Sustainability

07/21/2010 02:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In my green posts I have written about the importance of environmental issues ranging from the amount of pollution caused by gas powered lawn mowers, water use in the landscape, and local food sourcing. But there is more to sustainability than just the environment. In this post I would like to discuss the important issue of people sustainability.

People sustainability to me means paying workers a decent wage so that they can sustain themselves and their families. In my gardening business I am constantly confronting the issue of clients not wanting to pay much for a service which will maintain the outside of their homes. They have called me in because they are unhappy with the way their homes have been maintained, but yet have a difficult time understanding that they need to pay more for a higher quality service. Folks that are very concerned about doing the right thing for the environment seem to not think twice about paying a very low wage to the people performing a very important service for them.

Many of the clients I meet are paying $80 a month for a weekly service that is expected to maintain the outside of their home. Their expectations are very high on how their yard should be maintained. The list of expectations include:

Grass cut
Leaves raked and removed
Beds cleaned
Weeds pulled
Dead plants removed
Plants pruned (most want that done by hand and not with an electric trimmer)
Irrigation system checked to make sure it is running properly
Lighting checked
Plants fertilized
Cleaning up after the dog
Bringing in or taking out of trash cans
General inspection of property to make sure that plants are all thriving at optimum levels

This is all to be done by two men in less than an hour per week being paid about $10 per hour including travel costs. This is before taxes as well. Is it any wonder that the quality of work is below par? The most they could expect from such a low level of wages is "mow, blow and go", and the client is very disappointed with that service.

The only way the gardener has any hope of making any money is to do as many homes as they can as quickly as they can. The typical gardening route is 12 homes per day. The only way you can do that is by getting the job done as quickly as possible with little concern for quality. Only the most basic tasks can be performed and then only minimally.

How did this come about? Homeownership at one point in our history was only for the wealthy. A staff of gardeners and caretakers lived on the estate and worked full time maintaining it. When housing became more affordable for middle income households, part of the responsibility of owning a home was doing your own gardening. You might hire the neighbor's son to mow the lawn, but you took care of the real gardening of the property. As women went to work outside the home, many of the household chores needed to be done by someone else. Japanese gardeners in Southern California were hired to maintain the gardens of many of the upper middle class homes. As more Hispanics migrated into the Southern California area, legally or illegally and many of them initially as migrant farm workers, they made inroads into the residential gardening business by offering lower prices than the Japanese gardeners. Today most middle income homes have Hispanic gardeners that are maintaining the entire property, but are really paid not much more than the neighborhood boy that would come by Saturdays to cut the lawn. Mind you these are men that have families to provide for - not trying to get pocket change for an ice cream.

Perhaps we are so detached that we no longer think about whether or not the people that provide us important services are living any kind of sustainable lifestyle. I know in this economy we all are looking to cut costs, but at what price? Certainly if we care about the planet's sustainability that must include people sustainability as well. I hope that I might get you to relook at what you are paying your gardeners every week and ask yourself if your expectations aren't a bit high for what you are paying.

The reality is that we pay for it in one form or another. If these people cannot make a decent wage then they are forced into emergency rooms for "free" healthcare, on food stamps etc. Our taxes then go up to pay for these things.

In the age of "I got a great deal" mentality -- maybe it is better to know " I am doing the right thing by paying a worker a fair wage to provide a quality service so that he/she can live a sustainable lifestyle."