A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but that rose’s label matters more than you know. According to a Scientific American article, roughly 100 million roses are traded every year for Valentine’s Day – with 9,000 metric tons of carbon emissions (Whelan 2009).
Indeed, the cut flower industry is an icon of global commodity markets and capitalism, with leading producers including Columbia, Ecuador, Kenya, and Ethiopia (Mitiambo 2008). As a quick Google search of “environmental impact flowers” will reveal, cut flowers are generally grown with relatively high amounts of pesticides (compared to food-producing agriculture) and often in exploitative worker conditions, where the (mostly women) workers suffer respiratory disease from chemical exposure, stomach cancer from nitrate exposure, long hours, and more (Pimentel and Lehman 1993). Furthermore, flowers are often grown in places where floriculture is still poorly regulated by the state (Getu 2009), and because their entire value is dependent on presentation and freshness, flowers must be stored in refrigerated containers and shipped by air. The magnitude is astonishing: Miami International Airport alone handles 187,000 tons of flowers each year, moving flowers for the United States’ $12 billion flower market (Freakonomics 2012).
So, flowers are bad and we shouldn’t buy them for Valentine’s Day?
First, we should put the “9000 metric tons of CO2” number in perspective. Not all flowers have equal environmental impacts. For example, according to the same article in Scientific American, the average Kenyan rose results in 1.1 lb of CO2 emissions (Kenya is the #4 producer of roses in the world), while the average Dutch rose (Holland is the #1 producer of roses worldwide) results in 6.3 lb of CO2 emissions (Whelan 2009). Why is this the case? In Kenya, warmer weather means that less artificial warming is required than in Holland, and workers in Kenya often bike or walk to work rather than drive, as they do in Holland (Whelan 2009).
Even 1.1 lb of CO2 for a rose may sound like a lot of CO2, and it is: 1 pound of CO2 takes up 8.7 cubic feet of space. That’s 8.7 cubic feet of pure CO2. But a bouquet of 12 Kenyan roses (on average, 13.2 pounds of CO2 according to the Scientific American article above) is still less than half the carbon emissions required for your average 1-pound steak, which produces, on average, 27.1 pounds of CO2 (http://www.ewg.org/meateatersguide/a-meat-eaters-guide-to-climate-change-health-what-you-eat-matters/climate-and-environmental-impacts/). So in carbon terms, it is better to give up that Valentine’s Day steak dinner than it is to give up the roses.
Of course – it’s not all about carbon. As mentioned above, floriculture tends to use more pesticides than agriculture, with potentially more exploitative worker conditions. But this portrayal tars all floriculture with the same brush. Floriculture, when practiced in certain ways, can have impressive social benefits. Floriculture is a good fit for small-scale farming because it is a high value industry that requires little space relative to other agriculture. Also, in a study of the Columbian flower industry, floriculture has provided stable wages – and precisely because it employs mostly women, this same study found that floriculture has empowered women in Columbia (Friedemann-Sánchez 2006). And, far from being a nail in the coffin, poor government regulation has served to provide opportunities for self-regulation. In Ethiopia, for example, the Ethiopian Horticulture Producers and Exporters Association (EHPEA) has emerged and developed its own Code of Practice for floriculture. Offering Bronze, Silver, and Gold certifications, the EHPEA has led to a reduction in ozone-depleting methyl bromide, reduced fertilizer, pesticide, water, and energy consumption, and reduced occupational health risks (EHPEA 2008).
What it comes down to is that the name of the rose does matter – at least as far as certification goes. Flowers can be certified under a number of environmental and social certifications, including familiar ones such as “organic” and “Fairtrade.” For the cynics out there, these familiar labels can, indeed, make a difference, at least according to a study of a Fairtrade flower farm in Ecuador which confirmed in practice the social and environmental benefits that Fairtrade advertises (Ellis 2013). In addition to these familiar certifications, there are also more flower-specific certifications like the above “EHPEA Gold” for Ethiopian flowers and “Florverde”, which certifies for low water use, air pollution filters, environmentally-sensitive waste disposal, and social programs like education and housing subsidies, literacy programs, day care centers, and full benefits.
OK, so what are the barriers to sustainability?
Interestingly, a 2009 study that surveyed flower growers in the United States found that 2/3 of flower growers think that sustainability is “very important” (Hall et al. 2009). But – the grower’s personal opinion on sustainability was not a good predictor of whether they actually engaged in sustainable practices. Instead, the two most important factors determining whether flower growers engage in sustainable practices were (1) concerns about implementation, and (2) perceived risk (Hall et al. 2009). This highlights even more the role of the consumer to create stable demand for sustainable flowers to reduce risk for growers.
What you can do:
- Next time you buy flowers, look for “Florverde” certification – or Fairtrade, or any other certification you know and trust. If you’re spending money on flowers, you can afford to buy flowers that you support politically.
- To reduce the carbon footprint involved in shipping and refrigerating delicate flowers, opt for heartier breeds like lilies, birds of paradise, and ginger.
- Find out what is grown close to you! (A good resource is LocalHarvest.org, http://www.localharvest.org/)
- To enjoy flowers and also promote bees, buy a neonicotinoid-free living plant for your home instead of buying cut flowers. Grow your own flowers!
- And finally, if you’re involved in floriculture, join the Floriculture Sustainability Initiative (FSI): http://www.fsi2020.com/en/home.
For more info, check out this Freakonomics podcast: http://freakonomics.com/2012/05/03/a-rose-by-any-other-distance-a-new-marketplace-podcast/, and check out this interactive Guardian article about how to make your Valentine’s Day more sustainable: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/interactive/2009/feb/11/green-valentines-day-gifts-environmental-impact.
EHPEA, 2008. “EHPEA Code of Practice for Sustainable Flower Production – Bronze Level”, version 1.2.
Ellis, C. 2013. Como es duro es bonito: Labor conditions and gendered complexities for women working on a fairtrade rose farm in Ecuador (Unpublished MA thesis), University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, USA.
Freakonomics 2012. “A rose by any other distance: A new Marketplace podcast.” http://freakonomics.com/2012/05/03/a-rose-by-any-other-distance-a-new-marketplace-podcast/
Friedemann-Sánchez, Greta. Assembling flowers and cultivating homes: labor and gender in Colombia. Lexington Books, 2006
Getu, Mulugeta. “Ethiopian floriculture and its impact on the environment.”Mizan law review 3.2 (2009): 240-270
Hall, Tanya J., et al. 2009. “Factors affecting growers’ willingness to adopt sustainable floriculture practices.” HortScience 44.5: 1346-1351
Mitiambo, P.M., “Floriculture Value Chain; the Case of Kenya”, ESAMI, 2008, at. 3
Pimentel, David and Hugh Lehman. 1993. Assessment of Environmental and Economic Costs of Pesticide Use, in the Pesticide Question: Environment, Economics, and Ethics 47, 1993, at 55.
Whelan, Carolyn. 2009. “Blooms Away: The Real Price of Flowers.” Scientific American. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/environmental-price-of-flowers/