Flowers are wonderful. They’re natural, they’re beautiful, they smell good. They come in endless variations, colour combinations and arrangements that leave you both in awe of what nature can produce and how florists manage to curate them so well. What’s not to love?
Well, while all these things are true, there are also ethical issues and considerations to make when it comes to sourcing flowers. Just like food or fibres, flowers are an agricultural product, which means there are multiple factors to think about beyond how your florals look. Here are some of the biggest things to think about, and what you can do.
Florals by Honeysuckle and Hilda, photographed by Eva Nemeth
Nearly all of the flowers we buy in the west were actually grown elsewhere. Around 80% of flowers in western shops are imported from countries such as The Netherlands, Kenya, Colombia, Vietnam and Ecuador. This is because these countries are near the equator and so have better growing conditions including twelve hours of daylight each day, sufficient rain, and ideal temperatures.
Flowers are a booming business for these countries. The Netherlands is one of the world’s largest exporters of cut flowers; two-thirds of European flowers are traded through their flower auctions, but since the 1990s flowers have also increasingly been imported from East Africa. In 2010 alone the Netherlands imported three billion roses from Kenya for export to other parts of Europe, and in East Africa flowers now make up more than 10% of total exports, second only to tea. It has also been said that in the US roughly 100 million roses are given on a typical Valentine’s Day alone, producing 9,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions (disclaimer: I found multiple articles referencing this but haven’t been able to trace the original source of this statistic, so I can’t verify if it’s truly accurate).
In the past there has been debate over whether imported flowers are a sustainable option. In 2007 Britain’s International Development Secretary Hilary Benn argued that importing African flowers is better for the environment because they aren’t grown in heated greenhouses, as they are in the Netherlands. Unlike the Netherlands Kenyan hot houses don’t require artificial light, heat and cooling, and a 2008 study found that, including transport, Kenyan roses produced 6,034kg of CO2 compared to the Netherlands 37,110kg.
However Pat Thomas, a journalist from The Ecologist, argued that the focus needs to widen beyond CO2 alone:
‘Such figures must encompass the entire life cycle of the flower and include carbon released from fossil fuels used in cultivation, fertiliser production, refrigeration and transport, as well as the methane released from binned flowers. In addition, there are two major elements that should indeed make you doubt whether a rose from Kenya is actually good for the environment, more specifically the massive use of pesticides and water.’
Pesticides & water pollution
As always, the issues are more complex than just one factor that we need to consider. Pesticides are one of the major issues when it comes to growing flowers; because we don’t eat them there is far less legislation when it comes to the pesticides used in flower production. The flower industry is one of the biggest consumers of pesticides in the world: in Colombia 12 different pesticides are used, Ethiopia use 120 pesticides that are on the WHO negative pesticide list, including toxic chemicals (which Kenya also still use) such as DDT and methyl bromide (an ozone-depleting chemical that is banned in countries like the US). Workers are rarely trained on how to use these pesticides properly, resulting in multiple health problems and damage to local eco-systems.
In particular pesticides pose a threat to water systems, as run-off from chemicals in growing fields often ends up in neighbouring waterways. For example fish stocks in Kenya’s Lake Naivasha, which are crucial to local communities, have collapsed as fertilisers drain directly into the lake and have essentially turned it toxic.
‘Most of the Kenyan floriculture industry is concentrated on the shores of Lake Naivasha – a complex and sensitive ecosystem, which is home to hippos, flamingos and other animal life. Since the floriculture industry moved in, the population rose from 6,000 to 240,000. Lake Naivasha has shrunk to half its original size, water is polluted – because of pesticides and sewage from the city of Naivasha – and the biodiversity is threatened. Even the flower industry recognises the environmental degradation resulting from the overuse of water, pollution of the lake, and the increasing population in the area.’
Pesticides also don’t just run off from fields. As many as 90% of applied pesticides evaporate from soil and foliage a few days after application, travelling an average distance of 1500 miles and adding to air pollution and public health crises.
This all shows that, although carbon is a huge issue alone, we also need to be questioning how our products are grown, and who is affected by the growing.
Claire from Honeysuckle and Hilda uses a mix of seasonal flowers grown in her own garden, flowers sourced from local British farmers and foraging, meaning each arrangement is unique to the time of year. Photographed by Eva Nemeth
Exploitation in the supply chain
The floriculture industry in these countries employs tens of thousands of people, mainly women, on plantations. In Colombia, for example, one in 100 citizens work in the flower industry, while hundreds of thousands indirectly depend on the sector around the world. Unfortunately, the quality of these jobs is exploitation at best, and slavery at worst.
The charity War on Want reported that in Colombia women work, usually on insecure temporary contracts, for up to 15 hours a day earning just over £24 a week (less than half a living wage), which doesn’t cover their living costs. These women are routinely subjected to sexual harassment and also forced to breathe in toxic pesticides, leading to above-average rates of miscarriages and children born with birth defects, as well as frequent health problems such as fainting spells, chronic asthma, eye and breathing troubles, skin complaints, allergies and headaches. Additionally, flower workers account for one in three cases of carpal tunnel syndrome from the physical nature of the work. Conditions were found to be mostly the same in Kenya too, although Kenyan workers earn even less, barely taking home £5 per week. Even if countries claim to pay a minimum wage, this is not enough. The minimum wage in agriculture in Kenya is €1.25 per day, in Tanzania it is €0.96 and in Ethiopia it is even lower. Uganda doesn’t have minimum wages at all.
Overall working conditions are extremely poor: involving minimal pay, extremely long physical hours, and frequent sexual abuse and exploitation of the predominantly female workforce.
‘Bosses demand sexual favours in exchange for an extension to a contract or a day off. Women with a temporary contract lose their job when pregnant. Staff with an open-ended contract are requested to take leave instead of maternity leave. But the health conditions of many female workers are particularly worrying: headaches, dizziness and fatigue are the rule rather than the exception. Miscarriage rates are high. Protective clothing is rarely available.’
There are also child labour issues when it comes to specific flower supply chains, most notably roses. As well as the countries previously mentioned India is also a large producer of roses, and there have been multiple cases of slavery found in these supply chains. One recent example is IJM’s rescue of four young boys who were enslaved on a rose farm. They were forced to work on the farm after their parents took a loan from the owner, but after years it was clear that they were enslaved, and that their work was not going to pay back any debt. For these children each day started at 5am; they worked 12 hour days watering over 4,000 flowers and loading cut roses onto delivery trucks. They were banned from going to school, beaten with sticks and fists if they made a mistake (such as overwatering), and tracked down and beaten if they tried to run away. Luckily IJM was able to rescue these children and reunite them with their families, but slavery is still a prevalent issue in the Indian rose industry.
Once flowers have reached our sellers and florists, there are other questions of waste to consider. In 2017 Australia imported 5.22 million roses for Valentine’s Day, mainly from Kenya, which became approximately 217,500 bouquets. It is estimated that if each of those bouquets was wrapped in 75cm of plastic, that adds up to more than 163km of plastic wrapping used just for roses, just in Australia, just on Valentine’s Day. Multiply that by the whole year, or apply it to a larger country (for example the US’s estimated 100 million for Valentine’s Day) and that is a colossal amount of waste.
But an even larger issue is, undoutedly, floral foam. A chunk of foam that can be cut into any shape, it is often found at the base of bouquets as an anchor, keeping flowers in formation and soaking up water to help them last longer. Unfortunately it is also a non-biodegradable, oil-derived plastic material that is made with carcinogenic chemicals such as formaldehyde, phenol, heptane, barmium sulfate, and carbon black. Floral foam is always sent to landfill, (some people claim it’s compostable. It isn’t.) and will only ever break down into smaller pieces of plastic. There is also an argument that it releases microplastics because it is delivered dry and then soaked in water, and the inhalation of particles from foam or continued exposure to it is dangerous to the health florists regularly working with it. It’s wasteful, it’s toxic, and it’s a frankly unnecessary tool, as many florists nowadays choose to work completely foam free.
What consumers can do
Buy local, seasonal flowers
In the UK you can use Flowers from the Farm, a network of farmers, gardeners and small scale growers bringing together the best of British flowers. You can navigate by choosing the type of flowers you’re looking for, or use the growers’ map to find a flower farm near you, and from there you can check the individual farms for things like pesticide use and environmental practices. Some importers have argued that if the current level of consumption was immediately diverted to UK growers we would also need huge glasshouses and heating due to demand, so try purchasing consciously and not too often.
Forage or grow your own
There are several methods you can use to take control of what you’re growing and putting in your home, including looking into locally grown, seasonal flowers, or foraging in your area. Obviously there’s a responsible way to do this (no climbing into people’s gardens, for example), but it is very much doable, all you need is a good pair of shears. Other options you could look into include joining a community garden, starting your own flower beds, or investing in flowering houseplants instead.
Look for certified options
This is especially important if you’re buying imported flowers, as there are fairtrade flowers out there. In 2004 the first fairtrade bouquet was sold in Switzerland, nowadays more than 50 plantations have been certified in 17 countries, mostly in Kenya, Tanzania and Ecuador. In 2012 an impact study was published which found that working conditions on fairtrade plantation was significantly better than non-certified options, and a 2018 study found that farms that were certified fairtrade were also found to adopt more sustainable farming practices.
That being said, this is still not a guarantee of organic flowers, so also look for flowers that are certified by organisations such as LEAF, the Soil Association, or Rainforest Alliance.
Additionally, in 2013 the Floriculture Sustainability Initiative (FSI) was launched, with an ambitious target that 90% of flowers that are internationally traded by members will be sustainably produced by 2020. Currently there are quite a few labels on the market (In B2B transactions trading standards are used such as MPS-ABC, GLOBALGAP and ETI, other flowers have the EKO label and some British supermarkets developed private labels of their own, to name a few), which make it almost impossible to truly understand or tell the difference. This is where the FSI come in:
‘Because of the many labels nobody can see the wood for the trees any more. The goal is not to establish a new label, but instead to develop a tool that compares several labels so growers and retailers finally get a clear view. Things should be more transparent and based on facts. In addition, we mainly want to share information about best practices on water management, the use of pesticides, human rights and environmental-friendly transport.’
You can sign up to the FSI newsletter here if you’re interested in following their developments.
As with many other industries such as coffee, chocolate or makeup, IJM works to remove slavery and bonded labour from supply chains at the source of the problem. They’re currently running their Slave Free campaign, which includes the floral industry. You can partner financially or get involved in other ways here.
Support sustainable florists
There are florists out there who acknowledge and are passionate about sustainability. When looking for florists to work with look for those who don’t use floral foam or plastic, who source local or ethically certified flowers, and who are transparent about the ways they’re working to be ethical and sustainable in their industry.
If you’re a florist the British Academy of Floral Art also has clear guidelines and suggestions on how to make your practice more sustainable here.
As is often the case, there is never one simple answer to industries that are international and complex, however there are ways to purchase flowers more consciously and sustainably. Ways that mean you get to appreciate their beauty, but also avoid exploitation and environmental degradation too. It is possible, if we actively seek out better options.