Read this before you splurge on your next Insta-worthy bouquet.
Here’s a fact that all you #plantmoms out there already know: flowers make us happy. In fact, it’s science. But do you know where your flowers come from? Chances are it’s not from that cute local farm where you went to feed the llamas last summer. And while we are increasingly conscious of the origins of the clothes we wear and the food we consume, the provenance of that bodega bouquet you grab when running late to your friend’s gallery opening (again), might not be top of mind.
According to the 2015 Floral Trends Report, imported flowers make up approximately 82% of the total cut-flower sales in the US, with the bulk of these blooms making their way to local supermarkets from Colombia and Ecuador, the second- and third-largest exporters of flowers in the world, after the Netherlands.
This heavy reliance on imports is...thorny, and not just because of its effect on local farms, although it has had a dramatic and detrimental impact on US-based floriculture: sales of US-grown roses have dropped 95% since 1991. The current critiques of the floral industry stem, (yes, this is a serious issue, but that won’t stop me from making plant puns) primarily from the most dangerous byproduct of all imported goods: transport-related fuel expenditure.
In the three weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, the International Council on Clean Transportation estimated that 30 cargo planes with over a million flowers each flew from Colombia to Miami every day. That’s 114 million liters of fuel, emitting approximately 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. To make matters worse, the refrigerated delivery trucks that shuttle the flowers from the planes to their final destinations across the country are estimated to burn 25% more fuel than non-refrigerated trucks, meaning more carbon emissions. Oh, and they usually run on diesel, too. Gives flower power a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?
Beyond the sad, gas guzzling underbelly of many supermarket flowers, which is coincidentally also the name of a rather depressing Ed Sheeran song, there are a few other concerns at play in critiques of the floral industry, Colombian flower farms in particular.
The floral industry in Colombia is self-regulated, meaning there is no formal oversight on workers’ conditions or physical safety. An oft-cited study from 1981 of almost 9,000 Colombian flower workers found that they had been exposed to nearly 127 different chemicals in their work, some which were known to cause miscarriages, premature births, and birth defects in pregnancies of floral workers who became pregnant or partners of male workers. Pay is minimal, with Slate reporting that Colombian flower farmers make a monthly paycheck equivalent to $300 USD or less.
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Workers carry out the process of preparing for the export of flowers grown in the savanna of Bogota. Nearly 140 thousand workers in the sector process about 660 million stems of 1,600 varieties of flowers that Colombia exports to the world during the Valentine's season. Photo / Martín García / All rights reserved #sanvalentin #flowers #colombia #tenjo #flowersfarm @tallerasocolflores #gift #flowers #colombianflowers #trading #commerce #idcolombia #colombianpride #reportage #pressphotography #documentary #coverage #reportaje #fleur #colombie #amour #industrie #reportage #photography #news #photographer
However, conditions have been improving over the years. Child labor regulations instituted in the late ’90s have improved, but not completely eliminated the use of underage workers. There is also an increasing movement towards more sustainable farming practices, including the creation of Florverde, a Colombian certification standard, similar to the USDA Organic seal, to regulate responsible codes of conduct, standards, and sustainable agricultural practices in the floral industry. Given that producing a single rose requires as much as three gallons of water, according to a study from the University of Twente in the Netherlands, dramatic changes are needed. And they need to be enacted quickly. The one bright side? That’s less water than required to make a single cup of almond milk, but that’s another soapbox for another day.
There is a similar movement towards more conscious farming practices in the US; however, widespread implementation of these practices is slow going. In a recent survey of growers, 65% rated sustainable practices, such as recycling irrigation water and plastic, using alternative energy sources, and implementing biological controls, as “very important” to the environment; however, only 24% were in the process of adopting these sustainable practices due to the perceived financial risks and costs of altering their infrastructure.
What is an environmentally-conscious flower lover to do in this less-than-rosy world? First and foremost, find out where your flowers come from and how they are grown. This investigation is not to paint the Colombian flower industry and imported goods as the Big Bad. The industry itself has created thousands of jobs for local workers who may not otherwise have stable employment; however, if you are choosing to buy imported flowers, try to get a better understanding of the source farm — are they Florverde certified? Are the workers treated fairly?
If you would like to buy locally grown flowers, use the Slow Flowers directory to help find a farmer near you and support growers with sustainable farming practices. Try to pick up your weekly bouquet at your local farmer’s market, not last-minute at your local supermarket. Yes, that includes Trader Joe’s. And, someone please someone tell Kanye to stop it with his flower wall obsession (or at least check that those white roses are grown sustainably.)
In short, your purchasing decisions matter. When consumers let their spending speak, industry change will follow. Align that spending with your beliefs. And while it might seem absurd that you have to check how “green” a literal plant is, it’s another small and easy step we can all take for the good of this little planet we call home. So, go forth this spring season and make Mother Earth (and Miranda Priestly) proud by investing in some truly groundbreaking, sustainable, florals.