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May 1, 2020 News, Sustainability Tips

April showers bring May flowers…from 5000 km away?

The flower industry is complicated. There are many parties involved, with the Netherlands playing a major role in wholesale trading and breeding and an increasing amount of production migrating to the southern hemisphere. These countries, primarily Columbia, Ecuador, and Kenya, have the climate for fast flower production, and cheaper labour costs. Because of the many stakeholders involved in the production and trade of flowers, understanding the true impact of the industry becomes challenging.

A short history on the bouquet 

The oldest evidence of flowers arranged in bouquets comes from Ancient Egypt. There is also a history in Japan and China; flower arranging was a refined art-form centered around a belief that all life, including plants, was sacred (cut flowers were used sparingly). Bouquets eventually made an appearance in The Netherlands in the 18th century, where lavish arrangements were used as displays of wealth. The more familiar tradition of gifting flowers as an expression of sentiment was popularized in the Victorian era.

Cut-flowers and bouquets today

Today, the $8.5 billion floral industry continues to be dominated by the Netherlands, which has been the heart of the trade for the last 200 years.1

The many hands through which a single flower can pass makes traceability challenging and, along with the lack of data, a calculation of total impact near to impossible.

Are you interested in knowing how to buy flowers with the most positive social, environmental, and economic impact? Skip to the bottom and read ‘Selecting Sustainable Blooms’.

Environmental Impacts

Emissions

  • Once a flower has been cut, it enters a ‘cold-chain’ in which it is dry-packed and kept at a temperature close to 0°C until the moment it reaches the customer. The specific condition requirements (temperature, humidity, O2, and CO2 levels) increases the already high energy requirements for long-distance transportation.

Pollution

  • Flowers are non-edible, and therefore do not have the pesticide restrictions imposed on them, which means producers can use more liberal amounts to ensure their product is not damaged.
  • Pesticides can run-off and pollute local environments, especially local drinking-water. 2
  • International trading of flowers results in higher pesticide use, due to pest control protocols when crossing borders.

Land-use

  • In some countries, such as Kenya, the rapid increase of demands from the floral industry has resulted in deforestation of untouched forests to increase agricultural production space and also to accommodate increases in the population size due to flower farm employment.3

Social Impacts

The poverty and poor working conditions at flower farms in developing nations have been reported on for many years. While there have been improvements, especially in the case of the creation of certification programmes (i.e. Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, Verifora) to ensure that ethical and environmental standards are being complied with and enforced, the industry continues to be criticized for its poor labour standards.3

Economic Impacts

There are many benefits to local communities, with the presence of the flower trade.  The cut flower industry is the principal employer for many local workers in some developing nations, such as Kenya who’s second-largest export is cut flowers (greater than coffee, less than tea).4 The flower industry employs hundreds of thousands in Kenya alone. The industry also gives people, especially women, in rural areas with small amounts of land an opportunity to grow a cash crop.3

While this economic impact can be substantial, the flower market – like its product – is fragile. While it can be argued that industry bolsters employment in developing nations and reduces dependence on aid, it’s a vulnerable industry and subject to many uncontrollable factors, such as oil prices, climate change, as well as the economic situation in target markets.

In 2018, Canada imported close to $50 million worth of cut flowers.5

The Industry Amidst a ‘COVID’ Climate

In this time of global pandemic, weddings are being postponed, florists are closing up shop, and grocery stores are putting all priority on stocking food staples and essential items. As these changes have happened across the world, the effects are being felt from the flower fields to the auction houses, to the local flower shops.

Last month, one of the largest floral auction houses in the world (through which 40% of the world’s flowers pass) destroyed 70% of its supply due to the drop in demand and is predicting a cumulative loss of $2 billion locally.6 As sales continue to remain low, the impact will eventually ripple to the beginning of the line, and flower farms across the world will be forced to lay off hundreds of thousands of workers.

Demand for blossoms has crashed, due to COVID-19, and flower growers are throwing away flowers by the billions.

Selecting Sustainable Blooms

Choosing Where Your Flowers Come From

If you opt for a last-minute bouquet at the grocery store, it’s unlikely that a store attendant will be able to tell you where those flowers were grown. A single flower typically travels thousands of miles and crosses multiple borders before they land at their final destination, and there is often little to no traceability. Going to a local flower shop is the best way to ensure that your purchase has a positive impact on the place where it was grown, and every hand it has passed through.

  • Best Option: Choose locally grown flowers
  • Second Best Option: Choose domestically-grown flowers (grown in Canada)
  • Third Best Option: Choose imported flowers that are Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, or Veriflora Certified

Flowers are a perfect way to share our love and sentiment with friends and family that we are missing. They make people smile, have positive effects on mood7, and purchasing them helps to support local businesses that are currently struggling to stay afloat. Most local flower shops that are still open are offering online ordering and contact-free delivery.

Why Local and Seasonal are Best

  • They are fresher, do not lose their scent, and last longer because the time between the clip and the customer is usually a matter of days (vs. imported flowers, which is weeks)
  • A local florist is more likely to be able to personalize a bouquet to what you are looking for, and will be able to make substitutions if you request seasonal and locally grown flowers
  • It helps the local economy, by supporting the florist, the grower, as well as all their suppliers and clients and those along the supply chain
  • They didn’t have to travel very far (fewer emissions)
  • Purchasing from growers and shops that supply seasonal and local flowers, are more likely to also make other considerations for the environment
  • Seasonal flowers can support local biodiversity

Tips for Buying Local

  • Give the internet a quick search for nearby local florists. Give their website a glance over or call them up to see if they source local and seasonal flowers.
  • When purchasing a bouquet, request that all imported blossoms be substituted with local/seasonal ones.
  • Ask that paper wrapping and raffia be used in place of cellophane and plastic ribbons.
  • If the bouquet comes in vases and you/the recipient already has one, request extra flowers instead!

Is your heart set on buying roses for your loved one? Buy rose look-alikes! Ranunculus, as pictured above, is in the Buttercup family and has a beautiful rose-shaped blossom that blooms in abundance in the springtime.

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