cut flowers

The Cost of Cut Flowers

A bouquet of flowers is a timeless statement  – a token of love, commiseration and celebration. As such, cut flowers are a staple gift for occasions like Valentine’s Day, birthdays and anniversaries. The fanciest of floral aficionados may gift with floriography in mind – the language of flowers – which attributes various symbols and meanings to each bloom. The more casual flower-buyer may just opt for a loved one’s preferred bouquet. As Mother’s Day was last weekend, it’s without question that thousands of people rushed out to buy last minute flowers – from petrol-station bouquets to luxury arrangements. At Ethical, we ask, is there a greater cost that sits behind buying cut flowers? It’s time to consider the environmental impact of the industry.

Tulip Mania – the Consequence of Scarcity 

tulips

The Dutch tulip bulb market bubble, referred to as ‘tulipmania’ was one of the largest market bubbles and crashes in history. It took place in Holland during the 17th Century as the cost of tulip bulbs rose to dizzying extremes. The rarest tulip bulbs had a market value that was equivalent to 6x the average person’s annual salary. Adriaan Pauw was one of the period’s wealthiest and most powerful men. He was the director of the Dutch East India Company, the owner of an entire town, and diplomat to the French Court. It may be surprising therefore, that today, he’s best known in relation to his flowers. 

Like many wealthy men in 17th century Holland, Pauw kept tulips. His garden was home to hundreds of them. Reports from the time detail gazebos panelled with mirrors as to visually multiply his clusters of flowers and create an ostentatious display of wealth. Among the most valuable tulips was the Semper Augustus, a white bulb, which contained a virus that resulted in beautiful red veins (that unwittingly weakened and eventually killed the flower). An unknown collector owned almost all of these rare tulips – many historians believe that collector was Pauw. He had a monopoly on the small supply of the rare tulip, and as he refused to sell them, ultimately drove up their price. In 1638, a Semper Augustus was advertised for 13,000 florins, the value of a house. That was the year the market for tulips in the Netherlands crashed.

There were several market factors that caused the tulip crash: tulip traders could no longer find new buyers willing to pay increasingly inflated prices for their bulbs. However, much of the cost of tulips can be attributed to their then scarcity in Holland. Tulips first arrived in Western Europe in the late 1500’s, and, being an import from their native Turkey, commanded the same exoticism that many spices and oriental rugs did. 

The demand for flowers is driving a whole different set of consequences in today’s world. 

The Consequence of Overconsumption

The Environmental Impact of Cut Flowers – UK

According to government statistics, the UK market for cut flowers and ornamental plants was worth £1.3bn in 2018. 90% of these flowers are imported. Ironically, the vast majority today’s flowers come from the Netherlands (but not just tulips) and are grown in heated greenhouses which release large amounts of CO2. Beyond the production, there is also the carbon cost of transportation of flowers around the world. 

cut flowers

However, it’s not always the case that the lesser the distance for imported goods to travel, the lesser the carbon generated. A study from Cranfield University compared the carbon cost of roses grown in the Netherlands and Kenya and sold in the UK using life cycle analysis. The report indicated that while greater quantities of carbon were emitted in the transportation of the flowers from Kenya to the UK, there was a much higher carbon cost associated with the production phase of the flowers grown in the Netherlands. This is due to the intensive farming in greenhouses requiring large energy inputs. To be exact, per 12,000 rose stems grown in Kenya, 2,200 kg of CO2 were produced. For the same amount of flowers, there were emissions of 35,000 kg CO2 in the Netherlands. This translates to 6 times the amount of carbon dioxide produced for Dutch flowers. To give context, there’s roughly a distance of 680km from the UK to The Netherlands, whereas there’s 7,200km between the UK and Kenya. 

It’s estimated that 79% of energy used in the agriculture industry in The Netherlands is used in powering greenhouses for horticulture

roses

The Environmental Impact of Cut Flowers – US

But that’s just the UK. Each year, Americans purchase roughly 250 million roses for Valentine’s Day. Of these, 90% are imported from countries such as Columbia and Ethiopia. These roses require significant resources for travel such as refrigeration and flying on hundreds of cargo planes. In fact, every day for three weeks before Valentine’s Day, 30 rose-carrying cargo planes travel from Colombia to Miami. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, the four billion flowers that arrive in Miami from Colombia consume 114 million liters of fuel and release 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

The environmental impact of chemical fertilisers and pesticides are equally concerning. Given the cut flower industry’s short life cycle, many chemicals are used – polluting air, soil and water supplies alike. This has dangerous effects on environmental health. What’s more is that each different genus of flower attracts different pests, and so when large varieties of flowers are farmed, an diverse cocktail of chemicals are required to maintain a high volume of production. Naturally, the excessive use of pesticides results in these chemicals being deposited into the soil and groundwater. Interestingly, roughly one-fifth of the chemicals used in the cut flower industry in developing countries are banned or untested in the US.

Sustainable Floristry – the UK’s Answer?

While eco-minded customers and many in the industry are pushing for local, sustainable alternatives, the practicalities can be challenging – specific flowers may not be available as a seasonal demand requires them. When growing domestically, if there have been unexpected changes with the weather and the product isn’t available, a florist will be forced to provide alternatives. Growing flowers without the large-scale use of toxic fertilisers will reduce the crop yield, thus resulting in higher prices per bloom. 

Yet, there’s no denying that sustainable floristry represents a growing concern. The Sustainable Floristry Network aims to provide an educational program to both the flower industry and flower-buying customers. In fact, by 2030 it pledges to ‘ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature.’ In a survey of 1,200 florists carried out by the network, 83% said floristry teaching methods needed to change to address industry best-practice. For example, materials such as single-use plastic and floral foam are commonplace in traditional designs but cannot be composted or recycled.

In order to create its sustainability-led program, the Sustainability Floristry Network works in partnership with academic experts, and is aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, in particular SDGs #12 (Responsible consumption and production) #13 Climate action), and #14 (Life below water).

Another advocate for sustainability in the industry is Flowers from the Farm. They connect buyers to a network of small businesses, including both growers and florists that provide British-grown flowers. The intention is to connect customers to local growers, saving thousands of travel miles while reducing the industry’s carbon footprint. 

While it may be unrealistic to boycott a supermarket bouquet, it’s worth considering the environmental cost of mass-farmed floristry. Local and sustainably grown flowers may do more than put a smile on the recipient’s face – they can contribute to a cleaner environment.

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