#ValentinesDay – 5 ways to ensure your flowers are ethical

If you take an interest in ethical consumerism and plan to treat someone special this February 14, what dilemmas lie ahead? 

You might already be conscious of getting child labour and slave-free chocolate, a recycled card, even fair trade gold, and perhaps vintage or conflict-free diamonds if it’s a very special year. But what about your flowers?

This year one of us (Jill Timms) will spend her Valentine’s Day looking at sustainable supply chains in Lake Naivasha, Kenya, where hundreds of flower workers will be recovering from their busiest time of year.

Across the world, 250m rose stems will be produced for the day. Of those exported to the EU, 38% are from Kenya, where flower export values have trebled this decade. Governments in Ethiopia, Tanzania and more recently Uganda and Rwanda, are also pursuing expansion, with flowers now accounting for 10% of East African exports.

That part of the world has a natural abundance of heat and space and lots of available cheap labour. Flowers could help the regional economy to “bloom”. However, there are significant social and environmental challenges, such as the massive population growth around Lake Naivasha which contributes to pollution and has helped cut the lake’s volume in half.

Our own research project on sustainable flowers focuses on stakeholders from different parts of the supply chain. But you definitely have a role to play here too, and it begins with asking questions of the flowers you buy. 

Here are our top five:

1. Where are the flowers from?

Geography matters. Some flowers travel by sea, some cargo plane and others in the hold of passenger jets, all with very different carbon footprints. For instance more than 90% of UK flowers are imported, mostly from the Netherlands, although Kenya and Columbia are increasingly important suppliers. Chemical sprays freeze flowers to extend life, and they often travel via the Dutch flower hub. Historically the Netherlands has been the industry powerhouse but now works hard to retain this in the face of direct supermarket buying, growth in Chinese, East African and South American production, and criticism of the extra “flower miles” involved in transporting via Holland.

Millions of Valentine’s flowers will pass through the world’s biggest wholesale auction in Aalsmeer, near Amsterdam. Koen Suyk / EPA

Even when the origin is known, things can still be unclear as sustainability issues vary widely by country and flower.

2. Have the flowers met any standard of practice?

In response to ethical concerns, “certification” schemes are becoming more common. Yet we find consumers, florists and even wholesalers are often unaware or misunderstand these, with Fairtrade still being the only one with wider recognition.

You can help by asking your florist if their flowers are certified. If they don’t know, ask to see delivery boxes.

3. Who does your purchase support?

Supermarkets have their pros and cons. Flowers tend to be better labelled, and they are more likely to cut out the auctions and buy directly from growers, which assures provenance and means they can influence standards. 

Certifications can help you support farms that claim good practice, but could your purchase also promote development – a familiar argument for global trade? Of course, it depends on how it is done. For example, the Ethiopian government attracted lots of foreign investment in flower farming. However, incentives included controversial land use agreements that led to civil unrest in 2016, with several foreign-owned flower farms badly damaged or burnt to the ground.

4. What are your own priorities?

There is always a trade-off. Flowers grown in greenhouses in Holland use enormous amounts of energy, but travel less. Lake Naivasha roses enjoy natural heat and light, but are flown many miles and can be chemically treated to survive. So your priorities need to guide your purchase: environmental issues include carbon footprint, chemical use, ecological degradation and water use; social issues include health and safety standards, gender discrimination, precarious employment and land rights.

5. What will you do with your flowers?

Take in your own vase to avoid cellophane packaging or ask for reusable and recycled options. When presenting your blooms, take inspiration from the #nofloralfoam campaign. Treat your flowers well by refreshing water and trimming, keep them out of heat and sunlight, then recycle as green waste to make their journey worthwhile.

St Valentine’s is a day to express our love, so demonstrate yours for people and planet. The supply chains are complex, but our simple advice is to ask questions.

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