Homeowners Use Lawn Chemicals Mostly Because Neighbors Do It: Ohio State Study

Neighborhood pride is a crucial factor driving lawn management decisions, says an Ohio State study.
  • Survey finds 62 percent of homeowners use chemicals to enhance landscapes.
WOOSTER, Ohio -- A survey conducted by Ohio State University's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences shows that U.S. homeowners see lawns as important to their sense of social status and acceptance in their neighborhoods, leading to the use of lawn chemicals by 62 percent of respondents.

Published in 2012 in the journal Environmental Management, the survey also revealed that efforts to educate homeowners about the environmental impacts of their landscape management choices are likely to be more successful if geared toward neighborhood groups rather than individuals, said Tom Blaine, co-author of the study and a community development specialist with Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of the college.

"Based on the study, the main factor influencing a homeowner's decision to use lawn chemicals is whether neighbors or other people in the neighborhood use them," Blaine said. "Homeowners crave acceptance from their neighbors and generally want their lawns to fit in with their surrounding community, so they adopt their neighbors' practices. It's not that they feel pressured to treat their lawns. Rather, they genuinely want to fit in."

The study was funded by the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, which is the research arm of the college.

Conducted via telephone interviews, the survey included 432 residents (420 of whom provided usable responses) from across Ohio, a state that is considered to be in the mainstream in the U.S. regarding lawn and landscape practices. The largest group of respondents was between 40 and 59 years of age. The survey had a sampling error of less than 5 percent.

Blaine said this is the first study to measure the percentage of homeowners who hire lawn care companies to treat their lawns (22 percent) and the percentage of those who apply chemicals themselves or have someone other than a lawn care company do it for them (40 percent).

This is also the first study to provide a comprehensive profile of individuals who choose to have their lawns chemically treated. For instance, there was a strong association between income and the use of a lawn care company: less than 10 percent of households with incomes below $40,000 per year employ such a company, while 28 percent of those whose annual incomes exceed $80,000 do.

Additionally, female respondents were more likely than male respondents to report having used a lawn care company, while residents of rural areas were far less likely to employ such a company than people living in cities or suburbs.

Attitudes toward neighborhood pride were also found to be a significant factor in whether homeowners have their lawns treated by professionals. According to the study, people are more likely to hire a lawn care company if they believe their lawn care practices are important for improving their neighborhoods.

In fact, 61 percent of homeowners reported that they maintain their current landscape because it "fits in" well with the neighborhood, compared to 53 percent who cite ease of care and 41 percent who cite financial reasons.

"The survey shows us that, when they make lawn care decisions, homeowners are at least as concerned about improving their neighborhood as they are about improving their own personal property values," Blaine said.

In the case of homeowners who apply lawn chemicals on their own, the "neighbor effect" is also significant for driving their decisions, Blaine said. "People who believe their neighbors apply chemicals themselves are more likely to follow suit that way," he said.

However, for those who apply chemicals on their own, neighborhood pride is less of a motivating factor for using chemicals than for homeowners who hire lawn care companies.

"The portrait of a homeowner who employs a lawn care company is high income, whose neighbor does it, who is concerned about the quality of the neighborhood and less concerned about environmental or safety impacts of chemical applications," Blaine said.

Regarding the environmental impacts of lawn pesticides, Blaine said that survey respondents who were concerned about these kinds of impacts were less likely to employ a lawn care company. This, he said, may be the result of media attention given to the negative effects of lawn chemicals on human health and the environment, or a distrust of lawn care companies.

"The information we collected on environmental and safety concerns tells us that efforts to reduce lawn chemical use may require raising awareness of adverse impacts of these chemicals, since 88 percent of homeowners are in the dark about what chemicals are being applied," Blaine said.

"The results also suggest that there is a potential market for new kinds of lawn applications that can be shown to be safe and environmentally friendly, which could be targeted to those homeowners who are currently concerned about the impacts of lawn chemicals."

Blaine suggested that the "neighbor effect" could be used to begin implementing changes regarding lawn care strategies that are more environmentally friendly but still acceptable to large groups of people.

"The information obtained from this study is important because if we eventually want to move to non-chemical landscape management, we would first need to convince a few people to use it until it becomes fashionable enough that their neighbors would begin to see it as desirable," Blaine said. "Then, they might begin to use it as well to fit in."

However, Blaine said, such alternative treatments would need to be effective, easy to apply and affordable -- and should allow homeowners to preserve the current look of their landscapes. Americans are unlikely to drastically alter the look of their yards that they have come to expect.

"Lawns are an important part of American culture," he said. "Even if it's a small space, U.S. homeowners like to cover it with turfgrass because it presents the illusion of being a landowner. This is very much ingrained in people's attitudes."


CFAES News Team
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Tom Blaine