Why the Mainstream Cut-Flower Industry is Bad for the Environment
February 13, 2018 • 4 min read
Cut flowers are undoubtedly a huge, not to mention typical, gift when it comes to major holidays like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, anniversaries and graduations. So many celebrate their love with a bunch of roses or blooms, unaware of the environmental and social impact those pretty petals have. We thought it’d be wise to share with you the true cost of cut flowers, and why, especially around major holidays, they should be avoided.
Most of us don’t think about where those flowers sitting pretty in the florist’s shop or supermarket originate from. We assume they’re an environmentally-friendly gift seeing as they are natural and organic, and will go back into the earth. This, sadly, couldn’t be further from the truth. To understand just how big of an ecological and social impact those petals have, we’ll take you through the journey of a bouquet of flowers, from seed to vase.
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But first, some background information:
- The global trade of cut flowers is a whopping $100 billion a year!
- The largest exporter of cut flowers is unsurprisingly, The Netherlands, followed by Colombia, Ecuador, Ethiopia, and Kenya.
- Canada imports most of our flowers from Latin America, and North America in general imports around 78% from Central America.
Seeds are planted in countries in Latin America because of their temperate year-round weather, coupled with cheap labour and free-trade policies. Besides an ideal growing environment, the condition these flowers are grown in are far from organic. With the demand in countries like the US and Canada being so high around major holidays like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, these flowers are exposed to a melange of toxic agrochemicals such as fungicides, pesticides, fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides to ensure they stay pretty, keep diseases away, and grow faster. These toxins have a hugely negative impact on the air, soil and water supply of the region, not to mention the vulnerable workers, mostly women and sometimes children. The scariest part about these chemicals is that most of them are strictly banned in the US, Canada and Europe. Because the flowers are not considered agriculture in terms of an edible crop, they escape regulations and the industry has very little controls in place.
The makeup of the people who work in the floriculture industry are mostly women, and sometimes children. These women are usually from poor backgrounds, less educated and desperate for work. The poor working conditions, low pay, over-crowding, and long hours makes for a terrible environment, and many of these women suffer from respiratory diseases, neurological impairment, and have even reported higher numbers of miscarriages. In East African countries, greenhouse workers who are mostly women, are not paid enough to even cover basic needs.
Once the flowers are ready to be picked, their journey onwards, from crop to store, leaves a giant eco-footprint. After being harvested, they are stored in a climate-controlled warehouse, one that takes a ton of energy to run. They are then transported to the airport in a refrigerated truck, flown to their North American destinations (all those carbon emissions!), and then re-housed in a refrigerated truck to be shipped to their respective supermarkets and florists. Then at the florist or supermarket, they are once again popped into a chilled case, waiting for someone to take them home. The journey your bouquet of roses has traveled is a lengthy one, full of wasted energy and emissions.
Your bouquet’s ecological footprint hasn’t yet been complete. Once you’ve chosen your bouquet, it is usually wrapped in a plastic/cellophane wrap and tied with non-recyclable ribbons. Don’t forget the plastic water tubes that are put on the stems to keep them fresh! The flowers sit pretty in a vase in your home for about a week, and then as most of us do, we dump them in the trash (unless you compost). It’s tidy to think that since they are plants they’ll just naturally degrade into the earth, but trashing your flowers means they’ll go to a landfill where under the weight of all the other garbage, they will produce methane gas.
Wow – who knew ALL that went on in the background of a simple flower arrangement? We’re not suggesting you completely eliminate all happiness from your life, so if flowers bring you or your loved one joy, consider these alternatives.
But also – think about this: If you’re bringing a woman in your life flowers to celebrate your love for her, think about the horrendous conditions a woman has gone through to get you those flowers. Kinda negates the entire purpose, doesn’t it? Honour the woman (or person) in your life by presenting them with a gift that hasn’t negatively impacted another.
An easy fix, and just as beautiful if not more. Buying blooms that are in season from local farms and growers is a great way to ensure ethical production, as well as a smaller environmental impact. The variety of potted plants available is huge, and these guys last a long time (like your love?). Opt for something more metaphorically fitting this year!
Fair Trade Cut Flowers:
A better alternative to unethically cut flowers does exist! Many flowers grown by local growers have a Made in Canada (or your respective country) seal.
If the flowers are fair trade, they are usually labelled with the country of origin, and a seal from the organization. Look out for seals from Rainforest Alliance Certified, VeriFlora Certified, Sierra Eco Certified, or FlorVerde. These farms ensure fair working conditions, protected economic, environmental, and social rights, and gives a voice to their workers.
Lastly, if the flowers have been organically grown, the seal should be USDA Organic Certified. Be sure to ask your florist if they have ethical and fair-trade flowers in their shops – many of them believe customers don’t care, so they don’t bother labelling them.
Go DIY this Valentines and give your loved one a few packets of rare heirloom flower seeds, a vintage flower pot, and some cute gardening gloves. Plant your seeds together and let your love blossom.
Having an intention behind your gift is always highly valued. Whether it’s in the form of a potted plant or seed, gift flowers that are favoured by honey bees. You can plant them together in the spring, and do something great for the rapidly dwindling honey bee colonies. Some flowers and herbs honey bees favour are: lavender, sage, thyme, geranium, aster, calendula, poppies, sunflowers, crocus, borage and buttercup.
Skip the cringe-worthy carnations this year, and give a floral gift that aligns with your intention: love.
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