Fresh cut flowers, who wouldn’t love them? They make the perfect gifts at Valentine’s, anniversaries, and the upcoming mark-your-calendar occasion of Mother’s Day. They are ubiquitous when it comes to condolences and get-well-soon gifts. They inspire us to create makeup colours and fashion looks year round, and I know you’ve seen them in a few hundred pics in your Instagram feed. What’s not to love?
It turns out, a lot. The flower industry has a dirty little secret when it comes to affecting our health and the health of our families, the environment, and the economy. Read on to see why something so pretty can be so ugly, and what you and I can do about it!
The Bad News
The first is that these pretty florals come at the cost of our health. Most (80% to be exact) of the fresh cut flowers sold in the United States come from South American countries such as Ecuador, Peru and Columbia. In the 1980s, duties on flowers being imported from these countries were removed as a measure to encourage farmers in those countries to switch from growing coca leaf (required for the production of cocaine) to flowers.
However, this created a butterfly effect that has consequences for our health. DDTs and other dangerous pesticides and herbicides may be outlawed in Canada & the US, but that doesn’t mean that they necessarily are in other parts of the world. Because the pressure for perfect-looking flowers is so high, farmers in South America use those toxins liberally. And since there’s no law on the use of these chemicals on cut flowers, they enter our countries via imports, and end up in your dining room or on your desk.
The second cost of fresh cut bouquets is environmental. In Europe, fresh cut flowers are imported from Kenya, where the environmental cost of this industry has been widely publicized. A single rose grown in Kenya takes about 10 liters of water to produce. And while Kenya is making efforts to green its flower industry, the same can’t be said of the South American flowers that find their way to the United States.
In those countries, demand has grown, and so more forest has been cleared for the production of flowers. Not only do pesticides and herbicides make their way into local waterways and make sources of drinkable water toxic, but the CO2 emissions from the import of these flowers add up to about 9,000 tons each Valentine’s day.
The final cost is the human cost. The toxins used in the growth of fresh cut flowers takes a toll on the health of the workers, who are often underpaid and not unionized. Labor abuses are as systematic and serious as anything found in a fast fashion sweatshop, ranging from long work hours to inadequate (read: non-existent) child care.
So with all these serious and varied consequences of our floral obsession, is there any way to continue gifting flowers as well as avoid negative health, environmental and labor effects?
The Good News
Thankfully, there are some voices out there that have made sustainable florals a priority. Alternatives do exist, ranging from fair trade flowers found at Whole Foods to florists who carry only American grown product. Look for the Veriflora certification for sustainable bouquets. And if all else fails, you can always check out your local farmers’ market. Ask questions about where and how individual sellers grow their flowers to source sustainable, healthy florals for gifts and decorative accents.
Luckily, there are tons of artisans out there making gorgeous, life-like paper flowers that can be used for home decor and photo accents. A quick Instagram search will result in lovelies such as the one above. Or you can check Etsy for beautiful florals made by small businesses, including the possibility of custom orders.
When it comes time for gift giving, you can always opt for potted plants rather than a bouquet. Grown yourself, seeds that will bloom or already blossoming plants are a more permanent and therefore, in my opinion, more meaningful expression of affection. And if the receiver doesn’t have much of a green thumb, you can always opt for the sustainable bouquet option!
Are you surprised about the state of the fresh cut flower industry? And which topic should I find the truth out about next? Let me know in the comments!