The True Cost of Flowers
This is a piece I’ve been mulling over for some time. With Valentine’s Day approaching–a day that supposedly garners 73% of flower purchases by men–I thought this was an appropriate time to dig this out of my drafts folder. While it’s not directly food-related, most of the issues are parallel. Committing to sustainable flowers is the next progression in my journey to living a more seasonal life.
Organic. Sustainable. All natural. Non-GMO. Pasture raised. These are all words and phrases that float around the food world. It only takes one documentary or a few minutes searching the internet to get more information than your brain can handle about the problems plaguing food production. While the vocabulary can be vague or confusing, there is certainly a conversation going on about sustainable food. Flower production is every bit as agricultural as growing, say, kale, but there isn’t much buzz around sustainable flowers. At best you might notice a Rainforest Alliance sticker on your supermarket bouquet, but what does that even mean?
Given that growing flowers is an agricultural pursuit, the environmental issues mirror those involved with food: pesticide use, depleting land, clearcutting forests, and bad working conditions. Since a majority of flowers imported to the U.S. arrive from South America, that means rainforest conservation–or lack thereof–comes into play, too. So the question is: if we care so much about these issues when it comes to food, why not with flowers?
The obvious answer is that we typically don’t eat flowers. Yet the chemicals used in flower growing are still problematic. Pesticide, insecticide, and fertilizer runoff taint the water supply. The tainted water supply affects things we ingest, like the water itself and food that’s grown with the poisoned water. To make matters worse, chemical residue on flowers is much higher than that on imported produce. According to a 2002 article in Environmental Health Perspectives, the amount of pesticide residue on imported flowers is neither inspected nor regulated since they are not edible.
Not only does flower farming lead to toxic waters, but it is also a major drain on resources, including water. As with other forms of industrial agriculture, flower production propels a lot of fossil fuels into the environment and strips land of its nutrients. Dry forests and rainforests alike are clear-cut to make way for more flowers, depriving the atmosphere of very necessary, CO2-absorbing, oxygen-producing trees. Without sustainable practices, the conventional methods of flower production also lead to erosion and the loss of precious topsoil.
If the environmental factors aren’t enough, consider the people who grow, harvest, and process the flowers. Witness for Peace, a grassroots organization committed to supporting peace, justice, and sustainable economies in the Americas, claims that nearly two thirds of Colombian flower workers, “experience health problems associated with their work in the cut flower industry, especially related to the frequent use of chemicals.” Their factsheet on the Columbian flower industry cites pesticide poisoning, heavy workloads with limited bathroom breaks, and lack of permanent employment with benefits as some of the major issues faced by workers. The conditions are even more problematic for pregnant workers. A 2006 article in Environmental Health Perspectives points to high blood pressure and impaired brain development in children whose mothers are exposed to pesticides during their pregnancy.
Why care about the issues of other countries? The World Floriculture Map shows that the U.S. imported about 65% of all cut flowers from Columbia in 2013. Although some of the labor conditions are theoretically better in the U.S., the exposure to pesticide is still very real. A 2000 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health suggests that female workers in flower greenhouses likely have reduced fertility due to pesticide exposure. Further, a 1999 study published in Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis found a significantly higher than average prevalence of early stage cancer in Italian greenhouse floriculturists (a fancy word for flower farmers). Florists are also subject to the chemical residue on flowers, albeit to a lesser extent than the farmers who apply the pesticides.
The answer to the original question–why don’t we care about flowers like we do about food–it is most likely just lack of information. A quick internet search for “documentaries about food industry” produces lists with dozens of “must-watch,” “life changing,” “powerful” films, many readily available on Netflix. A similar search for documentaries about the flower industry is not so fruitful. I found five. Only one was easily accessible. In my research, I did find a number of other articles–mostly published around Valentine’s Day–about the dark side of the flower industry. But these issues still aren’t very mainstream.
There are a multitude of factors contributing to the sad state of the flower industry. Lower wages, lower land costs, and innovations in transport all encourage importing flowers. Loopholes, oversights, and apathy in government regulations allow for dangerous levels of chemical use. Lack of media coverage keeps customers in the dark about the truth of the flowers they’re buying. High expendable income in the U.S. keeps demand high. It’s hard not to get cynical about the whole industry when you take a step back and look at it.
Growing flowers sustainably isn’t an easy task, either. Last summer, I visited Southerly Flower Farm in Graysville, Tennessee, about 45 minutes north of Chattanooga. Sarah and Matthew Ervin were in the thick of their first growing season. In 2015, the couple decided to realize a longtime dream of making use of their family land to start a flower farm. Much of their learning was from trial and error, though they found that other sustainable flower farmers were very generous with sharing wisdom. I saw the Ervins’ struggles to organically control pests and varmints, like June bugs and voles. I saw the fencing and netting that they put up by hand, and I saw the flowers that had nibbles in the leaves. I saw two people literally pouring their sweat and blood into a project that is so much bigger than them. My eyes were opened.
Likewise, I’ve seen the reality of sustainable agriculture firsthand over the past two years at Skylight Farm in Douglasville, Georgia. Farmer Justin Aiello–who has now moved to Olivette Farm in Asheville, North Carolina–mainly focuses on growing vegetables and fruits, but sees flowers as a good way to diversify his offerings. He told me, “there’s something special about offering market customers a sustainably grown and harvested bouquet,” but, “there’s a learning moment within that decision [to buy sustainable flowers].”
A steep learning curve exists even with farmers market customers. “It’s an interesting dichotomy,” Aiello said, “that people are aware of the importance of organic and seasonal produce but will just as quickly expect to be able to purchase sunflowers year-round.” Farmers offer seasonal varieties of flowers beyond the typical supermarket fare of roses and daisies. At Southerly Flower Farm, I learned about celosia, variegated zinnias, and cult favorite Cafe Au Lait dahlias. These flowers are beautiful, but if shoppers don’t recognize them, they are less likely to buy.
Customers at local farmers’ markets are generally more agreeable about buying produce and flowers that don’t perfectly conform to beauty standards, but even their generosity has limits. That means only the cream of the crop makes it to the market in the first place. Harvesting flowers on farm workdays at Skylight Farm was always one of my favorite tasks, but it was sometimes disheartening to see how few of the flowers were considered fit to sell. The Ervins explored selling their flowers wholesale to florists, but found that the standards for perfect-looking blooms were even more difficult to overcome.
All that is to say, the cost of each flower is so much more than just a flower. The true cost includes the materials and infrastructure: seeds, fertilizers, fences, and greenhouses. It includes labor: planting, tending, harvesting, processing, and delivering. It includes resources: soil, water, and energy. It includes all of the flowers that get eaten by deer or get destroyed by flooding or don’t pass inspection. In the case of conventionally grown flowers, the cost often includes damage to the environment, health issues for the workers, and a missed opportunity to invest in our own economy. For sustainable growers, there’s the cost of alternative pest management and fertilizer, the cost of cover cropping, higher labor and land costs, and the time and energy involved with educating customers.
Nevertheless, farmers like Aiello and the Ervins continue devoting themselves to making sustainable options available. “When customers see beautiful, natural flowers at a market stand, it provides farmers with another opportunity to empower those who care to make informed purchasing decisions with more than just their food,” Aiello remarked. To further his point: if we care about our food, we should care about our flowers, too.
My hope isn’t to shame you, dear reader. I, too, have been ignorant of the impact that my flower purchases make. My hope is to start an important conversation. I don’t expect anyone to overhaul their life all at once in favor of sustainability and fairness. No, that would be far too overwhelming. I’m not ready to get rid of my iPhone anyway.
To be honest, the sustainable choice usually isn’t the cheapest, easiest, or most convenient option. It takes commitment. Tracking down locally grown flowers is a much bigger task than a quick stop by the floral section in your neighborhood grocery. It takes bucking the status quo–maybe opting for a bouquet of hellebores (Lenten roses) instead of a dozen red roses. And while we’re on the topic, can we please stop eating out-of-season, tasteless strawberries on Valentine’s Day?
With the caveat that these options aren’t necessarily cheap, easy, or convenient, here are a few ways to make more sustainable choices with flowers:
Source locally. If you’re lucky enough to have a local farmers market nearby that sells locally grown flowers, this is an easy one. Another option is to look around your own yard; a bouquet of foraged foliage and flowers can be far more meaningful than a purchased bunch of plastic-wrapped flowers. Some retailers, like Whole Foods, label the origin of their flowers, making locally and/or domestically grown options easier to spot. If buying locally isn’t an option, look for certified organic, Fair Trade, or VeriFlora certified blooms.
Embrace seasonality. There’s a reason why peonies cost an absolute fortune in February: they aren’t in season. Instead, look for winter-blooming flowers like anemones, hellebores (Lenten Roses), or stock. Clip camellias from your yard. A few sprigs of homegrown herbs make for a lovely, fragrant filler. Branches of flowering quince or forsythia make stunning displays.
Create demand. Ask retailers for locally and/or sustainably grown options. If enough people start asking for it, retailers will find a way to meet the demand.
Lastly, I’ll leave you with this. If you find yourself complaining about the cost of sustainable blooms, consider what the price tag of a supermarket bouquet would look like if it listed the true cost of the flowers:
(This graphic is meant for illustration purposes only; the hyperbole is intentional.)
Order sustainable flowers online: