Sustainability: Blooming Issues

How green are those floral bouquets?

Valentine’s Day brings out the sentimentality in many of us. Feelings of love have taken root and are blossoming within us, in cheerful yellows or inviting greens or passionate reds, all of which nudges us toward . . . the nearest florist or a floral-order website.

Even if you buy into the popular notion that love can set you free, you probably should acknowledge the cold fact that the pursuit and maintenance of love usually has a price tag. For many would-be, in-place or lost-cause couples, the presentation of cut flowers is a habitual if not routine expense. Especially on Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14) and Mother’s Day (May 8 this year), with Memorial Day (May 30), Hanukkah (Dec. 18–26) and Christmas (Dec. 25) also logging big sales of blooms.

And although cut flowers are lovely, peaceful-looking things that brighten many a relationship or gathering, they are not a commodity that shows love for the environment.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote a famous sonnet that is often quoted in association with Valentine’s Day: “How Do I Love Thee?” Because this is a sustainability column and mere sentimentality carries no sway, let us quickly run down a list of how cut flowers harm thy environment, and perhaps even thee yourself.

Last May on the TED Talk website, writer Ros Davidson provided a comprehensive overview of how little green (in the environmental sense) there is in the floral industry, which globally is worth some $55 billion. Her story, “The Environmental Impact of Cut Flowers? Not so Rosy,” reports that:

  • A majority of cut flowers sold in the United States originate from Colombia or Ecuador, which means they often are “flown thousands of miles in refrigerated airplane holds.” Other major producers of cut flowers are Sri Lanka, Kenya and China.
  • Many of the flowers are grown in “high-altitude industrial-scale greenhouses,” structures that take an environmental toll in terms of their construction, maintenance and temperature control.
  • Growing flowers requires lots of water and, for the purest appearance, employment of herbicides and pesticides. Those chemicals can end up polluting neighboring water sources. “Some critics claim that drought-stricken Lake Naivasha, the center of the industry in Kenya, has seen half of its water drawn off for use in flower greenhouses,” Davidson elaborates.
  • The carbon emissions generated by cut-flower sales are substantial: “In 2018, Valentine’s Day flowers grown in Colombia and flown to U.S. airports produced some 360,000 metric tons of CO2, according to estimates . . . roughly equivalent to 78,000 cars driven for one year.”
  • Once they arrive at U.S. airports, the flowers often are trucked hundreds of miles, creating yet more emissions.
  • People employed in the flower-growing industry can work long days, under poor conditions, and for low pay all while being exposed to problematic substances. “Despite some use of personal protective equipment,” Davidson writes, “floriculture workers are exposed to toxins in fertilizers and insecticides, as well as preservatives used to extend the life of blooms.”

The list of sustainability woes goes on. However, there are things you can do to mitigate cut flowers’ environmental shortcomings. Options range from purchasing regionally grown flowers, to reduce transportation-related negative impacts, all the way to buying a packet of seeds and growing your own batch of blooms.

An informal survey of local florists uncovered no concerted messaging about sustainability efforts. However, there is at least one local floral provider, Flourish, that strives to lighten its carbon footprint in the decorative elements it provides for weddings and other events. Its sustainability practices include using “locally grown and seasonally available flowers whenever possible,” composting all organic waste, reusing vases and other containers, and limiting the use of non-biodegradable foam in floral arrangements.

Learn more about Flourish’s green approach on the company’s website,