For an industry that relies on the beauty and abundance of the natural world, the floral industry’s practices have not, if we’re being honest, always honoured our resources. Now the tide is turning and floriculture is thinking more and more attentively about the ways its practices have harmed the environment and the ways we can ameliorate it. It’s an exciting turning point. As with all things floral, we can maximize the value of our actions towards sustainable floristry by considering the entire life-cycle of the flowers we use.
80% of the flowers sold in American shops are imported from countries far away from the U.S., countries like the Netherlands, Colombia, Ecuador and Kenya. That’s a big carbon footprint just for transport (like, 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions for a single holiday big). The bigger carbon footprint, though, often comes from growing the flowers themselves. Take into consideration the hot house conditions that must be maintained in a country like the Netherlands in order for conventional cut flowers to thrive and we start to get a picture of the resources that a single bloom requires before it finds a home to adorn.
One way to get past this is to join the slow flower movement and source seasonal, local flowers where possible. Get friendly with your neighbourhood organic farmers and see what pretty things they’re growing (or might be willing to grow). Forage your greenery. Find a plot in a community garden to grow some stock. Use heartier imported flowers that can take a higher transport temperature (like lilies or birds of paradise). The more creative you can get with the resources around you, the more minds you can change about what kinds of botanicals can be beautiful.
Plastic and Other Waste
About 100,000 tons of plastic is produced for the floriculture industry each year, of which only about 30 tons is recycled. Plastic film, plastic pots, plastic labels, plastic packaging, floral foam – ironically, the industry is awash in the artificial. And that’s to say nothing of the waste from flowers that die in transit, arrive damaged or die unsold. If you’re a florist who’s considering stepping away from floral foam, know that there’s some research to that proves that flowers absorb more water when placed in water containing a floral preservative than when placed in foam.
How do we minimize waste? Compost your biomass waste. Create more potted and reusable arrangements. Use less plastic. Go foam-free and wrap your creations in recyclable, compostable or reusable materials like burlap. Demand that your suppliers use less plastic. Get vocal about changing the policies necessary to shift away from single-use plastics like cellophane wrapping. It’s worked for plastic bags and straws – it can work in this industry, too.
Because we don’t consume flowers in the same way we consume food, it’s easy to forget that floriculture is agriculture. Floriculture, however, uses more pesticides than almost any other industry. Pesticides are the standard in the industry and since flowers are not grown to be consumed, rules governing pesticides are more relaxed than they are for food products. Consider, too, that the globalization of the flower industry has not been accompanied by a worldwide agreement on the types of pesticides that are permissible. Growers in Ethiopia and Kenya, two of the world’s leading producers of flowers, continue to rely on DDT and methyl bromide – pesticides that multiple countries have banned and that the WHO considers harmful.
The not-very-straightforward solution to the issue of pesticides, of course, is to go organic. The organic flower industry is growing but is not without its complications, the biggest of which is that the word “organic” is a term that’s been defined rather loosely. Check for “organic” certifications from suppliers but understand that each system will have its own standards, targets, requirements and compliance assessment strategies.
The effects of pesticides on local water supplies is only one facet of the complex issue of water use. Freshwater resources are often limited, for example in East African countries that supply a large percentage of cut flowers to European markets. When we look at the chain of production, we can see that the legacies of colonialism are still very much alive. By outsourcing this water-intensive industry to developing countries, European markets are also outsourcing pressure on their own water supplies onto developing countries, pressure that often creates conflicts between industry and indigenous communities. Water usage in Kenya’s rose industry, for example, has had a significant negative impact on the Lake Naivasha region from which it’s only beginning to recover.
If water is an issue that speaks to you, you can check out certification labels to see what standards for water use growers are following. Go through the Floriculture Sustainability Initiative for up-to-date information about changing practices in the flower industry. Ask your suppliers about their water-saving practices. And lastly, conserve water wherever you can.
Sustainable floristry is about the health of the land flowers grow on but also about consideration of the other humans involved in the production chain. There are many and it’s important that we regard them. Exposure to high levels of pesticide use and exploitative labour practices have caused a great deal of harm to people who produce the flowers we enjoy. You don’t have to google very far to find stories of appalling labour conditions, extreme poverty and unacceptable rates of illness among the people employed to produce flowers that are marketed in more affluent countries as decorations or even self-care options.
Fair trade floristry is a burgeoning trend but you do have to look for it. As with other industries like coffee, there’s a correlation between fair-trade farming and sustainable farming. If you make your purchases with one in mind, you’ve a very good chance of also getting the other.
Flowers are a joy to work with and a joy to give. Why should they come with hidden environmental and human costs that we don’t want to pay?