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Roses for Valentine’s Day: Are your flowers environmentally harmful?

One dozen red roses with pink star-gazer lilies in a tall glass vase. There is a white hydrangea and a variety of greenery. Eucalyptus, salad and myrtle.
One dozen roses with lilies. Designer and Photographer: Dr. Patty Baker

Valentine’s Day is approaching and many give the romantic red rose to the one they love. Roses are beautiful, they sometimes have a lovely fragrance, and they are meaningful. Hardly anything says, “I love you” more than a rose. Yet, the story behind the roses and other flowers is thorny. Flowers used in designs and purchased from flower markets and supermarket have a significant environmental impact.

The industry is harmful, but the fact that floral design has been a creative enterprise that has stood the test of time for thousands of years, is an indication that the clock can be turned back to a time when there were no options to us modern techniques. For example, non-seasonal and imported flowers, global transportation, and plastic and chemical-based materials used in designs were unheard of. For the floral business to return to being sustainable and environmentally beneficial, a change in the consumers' expectations about types of flowers and design styles they wish to purchase is needed. As a floral designer, I agree with the sustainable floristry network that it is the designers’ and flower growers’ responsibilities to educate their consumers about the realities of the floral business to help them make well-informed choices.

Before I write about solutions to the issues, which I will do in my next couple of blogs, in this one, I explain the environmental harms[1] that are associated with the floral industry. Why? Ultimately, it is the consumer who influences what designers create, florists sell, floral farmers grow, and the what materials the floral sundry business manufacture, such as chemicals, paints, dyes, containers, floral foam, wires, and tapes. If the consumer demands environmentally sound designs, sustainable floristry will re-blossom into the beautiful art-form that has given people joy for thousands of years around the world.

So, what are the realities of the industry? Here, I guide you through the process a flower goes through from growth to its use in a design.

1. Location. Flower farms are found around the world. On these farms, non-native species are often grown as the main crop. The choice for which flowers to grow is determined by fashion trends and consumer demand. Thus, seeds, tubers, bulbs and cuttings may be imported from different countries and planted in conditions that are imperfect for their growth. Non-native species can become invasive and harm local ecosystems.

2. Growth. For the farmer to yield a healthy crop of flowers, fertilizers, fungicides, and pesticides are regularly used on floral farms.[2] The chemicals have been shown to be both harmful to local environments and to those working with the flowers. For example, a study undertaken on flower farms in Uganda found that many of the growers are exposed to pesticides and fertilizers, some of which are classified as carcinogens. On some farms, employees were not provided with protective attire to keep the chemicals from absorbing into their clothing and skin, leading to the manifestation of health problems in some workers who were exposed to the chemicals.

Large-scale flower farming is new to this region of Africa. It was introduced for economic development because the warm sunny climate and water from Lake Victoria were seemingly ideal for this cash crop. Although it brings money into the country, aside from the health threats to farm employees, it has also had an environmental impact.

Lake Victoria is suffering. Water levels in the lake are dropping because of the need for higher irrigation than before the farms were developed. The chemical run-off from the surrounding farms has also been found in the lake. These factors threaten the lake's aquatic life, the health of the land animals who drink from it and eat fish from it, and the health of humans reliant upon the water for drinking and washing.

It is not only the farmers who risk chemical exposure. A study of Belgian florists’ gloves found that floral designers are also exposed to farming chemicals through the residues that remained on the flowers after they were harvested and transported to different countries. This suggests that the customer might also be exposed to pesticides and fertilizers, though most likely on a limited scale.

There is also the potential for the chemical substances to harm more distant locations. Chemicals from farms in Pennsylvania, for instance, have been found in the Chesapeake Bay. Chemical runoff from the fields finds its way into streams that eventually drain into the Chesapeake.

In other places around the world, such as the Netherlands, hothouses are used to grow flowers because the climate is not conducive to year-round flower growth. The large hothouses produce high levels of Carbon Dioxide emissions that contribute to air pollution.

3. Harvesting. Flowers begin to perish when they are picked, so they are quickly packaged in plastic or cellophane and placed in refrigeration to slow their aging process. This helps to ensure their survival during transportation. The packaging is usually non-biodegradable, and the refrigeration requires electricity, which contributes to the carbon footprint of the floral industry.

4. Shipment. Once packaged, the flowers are then shipped by truck and airplane to various places around the world. A study undertaken in 2007 at Cranfield University, England, found that 12,000 roses from Kenya resulted in 13,200 pounds (6,000 kilograms) of Carbon Dioxide when they were flown to the Netherlands. The same number of roses grown in Dutch hothouses had a much higher impact with 77,150 pounds (35,000 Kilograms) of Carbon Dioxide emissions. This is because the roses needed artificial light, heating, and cooling for over an eight-to-twelve-week period when the flowers were grown. Either way, the carbon footprint in the industry is high.

Flowers are often shipped to central markets located in countries different from their origin before they reach their final destinations. Flowers from Africa, for instance, are flown to the Netherlands, where they are distributed to the large flower markets such as Aalsmeer near Schiphol Airport on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Here the flowers are sorted, repackaged, and auctioned. Once they are bought at auction, they are, again, transported, either locally or flown to different places around the globe.

In the case of the flowers going to the UK from the Netherlands, they are packed into refrigerated trucks. The trucks cross the English Channel either by ship or train. The deliveries are then made to flower markets, flower shops, and super markets. Hence, a single rose might travel to more places and longer distances than some people who purchase them might do in their lifetime.[3]

5. Floral preservation. Once the flowers are in the shop or design studio, they will be processed. Their stems are cut and leaves stripped before they are placed in water buckets. Some florists dip stems in a chemical sealant before they are put into buckets to encourage water intake. Most florists will add flower food to their water buckets. The active ingredients of commercial flower food are citric acid, sugar, and bleach. Bleach and other cleaners are used to disinfect the containers to keep flower bacteria from spreading.

6. Designs. To create elaborate designs, florists commonly use sundries that are plastic based and non-biodegradable. These include floral foams, which contains micro-plastics, tapes, wires (though they can rust and degrade), plastic containers, and floral foods. When disposed of these can pollute the land and water and enter the food chain.

There is also a carbon footprint related to the materials used in designs to consider. We need to ask how far these are shipped and how are they packaged.

7. Delivery to the Recipient. Once created, floral designs are usually delivered by van to the recipient. Again, petrol/gas is the likely source of fuel used for the delivery vehicles, which further contributes to the carbon footprint of the flower production.

At this point more packaging materials might be used. Some buisnesses will wrap flowers in paper or place them in cardboard boxes, which can be recycled. However, some use cellophane, plastics, and tissue papers, none of which are easily recycled.

8. Disposal. Finally, we have to ask how the customers dispose of their flowers. Do they compost them or put them into their regular trash collection? Do they recycle and/or reuse their floral containers? If there are tapes, wires, and plastic based floral holders in the designs, are they disposed in regular rubbish bins or recycled?

These stages paint a frightening picture of the process of the floral business, and I am not the first to write about them. However, the more people are aware of the environmental hazards of the industry, then the consumer can help create a demand for environmentally sustainable and safe floral design. The consumer might also become appreciative of a designer who suggests using something local and seasonal for a flower choice rather than something common to modern traditions, like the Valentine’s Day Rose. Why be conventional?

In the next few blogs, I will explain the positive aspects of the floral business and what one can expect from sustainable floral design. So, if you are a floral enthusiast, to begin to “nip the problem in the bud,” have a look at my website to see how I use historical evidence to create sustainable designs.

Dr. Patty Baker

[1] In some places, the working conditions of floral growers and even designers are unhealthy and have few if any economic advantages. These details will be discussed in the future, but to suffice it to say, that poor environmental and poor working and economic conditions are interlinked. [2] Even organic farming relies on chemicals based on organic materials, not all of which are good for the environment. [3] For example, a BBC documentary, which is available on YouTube follows flower travels before it is delivered to a flower shop.


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