Traditionally, a bouquet of flowers is considered a thoughtful and loving gesture, but the environmental and social impacts of sending roses half-way around the world any time of the year are concerning. The puzzle is whether the energy, resources and money it takes to grow flowers in cold regions in the winter or whether the cost is justified, growing cut flowers in warm regions and flying or shipping them across the world. Maybe we should all just live with only having locally-grown cut flowers in season!
In this paper, I will analyse the social constructions of giving flowers, especially roses for Valentine’s Day, and how this affects the global environment. Through this paper, I will discuss the environmental ethics of the cut flower industry through history and the environmental and social costs of growing flowers in different regions, comparing the risks and hazards of growing them in poorer countries and transporting them vs growing flowers locally in richer countries. I will review what the industry has done to reduce these global impacts and then finally, how we can make a difference to improve the environmental impacts of the cut flower industry. For more than 5000 years, people have cultivated flowers even though they do not provide food or other rewards directly (Huss, 2017). In spite of some basic survival uses, such as edible or medicinal flowers, most flowering plants grown in the flower industry in modern times are not used for any purpose other than visual pleasure and emotional satisfaction (Huss, 2017). Despite this, flowers are considered an important part of most cultures all around the world, making the cut flowers trade global. There are three major holidays in the United States that are busiest for the flower industry: Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s day. Two of these holidays are celebrated during the winter months of the northern hemisphere, making it impossible to locally produce the roses or the other flowers in demand without greenhouses.
In Efrat Huss, Kfir Bar Yosef, and Michele Zaccai’s article, The Meaning of Flowers: A Cultural and Perceptual Exploration of Ornamental Flowers, they describe five social conventions that influence the importance of cut flowers throughout history:
1. A Symbol of Relationship at a Time of Separation A symbol of an enduring connection, flowers are given when people meet after some time, or when someone has to go away or undergoes a transition. A flower symbolizes an enduring relationship and becomes a type of “transitional object” that holds relational meanings.
2. An Expression of Positive Qualities in Individuals and in Groups. Flowers project positive characteristics of the self or of the ideal self onto the flower and including “opening slowly”, “blossoming like a flower”, “being pure”, and similar words transferring positive elements to the individual.
3. Connecting to Positive Community Events This includes the use of flowers to highlight collective values, such as adding qualities of family unity and of a general culture of 'giving'.
4. Flowers as “Making Special” Adding flowers to a personal meeting highlighted the specialness of the occasion, through the added expense, effort, and choice of flowers that are delicate and need care.
5. Flowers as Uplifting Mood The feelings induced by watching flowers, including adjectives of –“Arousing”, “exciting”, “encouraging”, “enhancing”, “optimistic”, “happy”, as well as “movement” and “a feeling of aliveness”. As well as creating a sense of calm, and contentment and expanding to general positive feelings such as makes life prettier, richer makes one feel 'free'.
The production of cut flowers for sale began in the 1600-1700’s in Netherland greenhouses where Lilac bushes were subjected to a natural cold period and then then forced inside warm greenhouses (N.C. Cooperative Extension, N.D.). The first greenhouses in the United States were built in the 1700’s to supply cities with increasingly popular cut flowers (N.C. Cooperative Extension, N.D.). However, the flower industry really took off when air transportation and refrigerated trucks made it possible to grow flowers in mild climates with rich soil and transport them worldwide. For example, the majority of rose production moved to Bogota, Colombia in the 1990s, partly influenced by a 1991 U. S. government plan to reduce cocaine production by eliminating import duties on the country’s flowers (Haragan, 2015). In the 1970s, the U.S. grew more flowers than it imported and by 2003 Columbia was the top rose importer to the U. S. (Haragan, 2015). Now the Miami International Airport processes around 187,000 tons of flowers every year (Haragan, 2015). With flower industry trade agreements, other countries followed Colombia; Ecuador is the second largest cut flower producer for the U.S. Worldwide, other main producers of cut roses and flowers include the Netherlands and both Kenya and Ethiopia, who supply flowers mainly to Europe and The U.K.
Moving the cut flower industry out of the cold regions and into the mild climates is controversial because the environmental footprint is large in both circumstances. In cold regions, the cost comes from high energy use from heating a greenhouse in the winter. In mild climate the cost comes from the large oil use from shipping the flowers from one country to the next. There are also consequences to the local people in poorer, flower-exporting countries that one people not realize when they are buying the cheap, large roses from South America or Africa.
Throughout history, traditionally Western Civilizations have had an anthropocentric outlook towards the environment and a utilitarian view towards the planet's resources (Robbins, 2014). Both of these ideologies consider humans to be the central factor of nature and that anything else only shows value if it can be a commodity or otherwise useful for humans (Robbins, 2014). These ideologies have made flowers a commodity and great lengths and resources are used to have cut roses/flowers available to everyone, year around, especially for Valentines Day.
To most, the red rose is the ultimate symbol of love and it is socially expected to send or get roses as an expression of love on Valentine’s Day. This expression of love comes at a high cost to everyone. To get roses to the U.S.in the winter, there is much labor and machinery involved. In less-developed tropical countries that grow flowers, workers are exposed to many chemicals and women and low-paid child laborers dominate the positions (Haragan, 2015). After flowers are harvested, a bouquet of roses that was produced in Bogota and sent to New York City is shipped and flown 2,500 miles in refrigerated trucks and planes that carry over 100,000 roses a day (Haragan, 2015). The transport of the millions of cut flowers for Valentine’s Day, produces 9,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year (Whelan, 2099).
So what are the risks and hazards of growing cut flowers locally in the U.S. compared to the hazards of growing flowers in South America or Africa? What are the risks and how do they compare? Many argue that there are major advantages to growing cut flowers overseas. Growing flowers year round in a climate that freezes in the winter, is only possible in greenhouses and heating a greenhouse when temperature outside are freezing, uses massive amounts of energy to keep the heat just right. In Ecuador and other warm areas, the carbon footprint of producing flowers is smaller, because there isn’t any artificial heating or lighting and the workers walk or bike to the farm (Whelan, 2009). Further, the sunny conditions and mild weather can boost production as much as 70%, the roses are larger and labor is cheaper, making it an easy decision for the flower growers (Norman, 2017) .To someone who wants to grow cut flowers for mass production, the cost of heating green houses is much higher than the cost of shipping flowers thousands of mile, so the shipping costs are economically justified.
However, the economic comparison between production costs in cold climates and transportation costs from cold climates does not tell the whole story. Where flowers are grown in warm climates, the cut flower farms have given workers in the areas jobs, but the risks and hazards are much more detrimental to the workers and local people of the cut floral industry in South America and Africa. Near Lake Naivasha in Kenya, there are many cut flower farms that are a direct cause of the water pollution due to a lack of regulation and awareness of the pesticide and fertilizer runoff (Morgan, 2017). The chemical runoff from these farms created large algae blooms, changed the pH level, and affected the diversity of fish species in the lake, who are in decline (Morgan, 2017). The water level has decreased in the lake, affecting the wildlife as well as the people who are dependent on the lake’s water. Another environmental issue that is often overlooked is the large amount of green waste (plant stems, leaves, and roots) that is created by the cut flower industry. Often, the green waste is covered with so many chemicals that it pollutes the area and water around the dumping site (Kassa, 2017). The exhaustive use of the soil, water and intensive use of chemicals and pesticides create a sterile land (Kassa, 2017). Even worse is the disposal of the non-recyclable cellophane wrapping used to package the flowers (Bek, 2017). Due to the lack of regulations, these risks and hazards are externalities that the poorer developing countries will directly suffer from to produce cheap cut flowers for the richer Western countries. It is not just these externalities imposed on the communities in developing countries that shift in flower production to warm climates. The floral industry in the United States was affected by the shift to importing cut flowers by putting many cut flower farms out of business. New Jersey was once known as the rose-growing capital, with Madison, NJ called the “Rose City.” Now 80% of roses sold in the US come from South America and the rest are grown in California (Kwoh, 2011). California is also suffering from the South American cut flower industry from the undercuts in prices, so California farmers are trying to find niches of producing potted plants or perishable crops (Harnett, 2017). A flower farm in Salinas, California at one point was “selling bouquets for 10 cents a bunch so they wouldn’t rot in their greenhouses” (Harnett, 2017). This farm was shut down in 2008 and they have been renting out the dilapidated greenhouses, trying to hold onto the land (Harnett, 2017). Since the legalization of marijuana in California in the 2016 elections, they are now planning on switching production to marijuana which is still illegal federally but protected from importation, so still has a good market in the U.S.
Fortunately, there is a growing moral extensionism movement from some of the floral companies and consumers. The floral industry is making efforts to change some of their behaviors to reduce the impact on the environment and the local people. Over the past few years there has been efforts to make changes that benefit the community and environment. For example, in the UK a program called “Plan A” was established in 2007, to promote ethical and sustainable practices across the floral industry (Bek, 2017). These specifications have been adapted by some companies in South Africa and include becoming water neutral by collecting rain, recycling water, and using water conserving irrigation systems; which has in turn reduced costs (Bek, 2017). Some have even stopped using cellophane wrapping or plastics by using recycled cardboard and are lowering the shipping footprint with sea transport (Bek, 2017). Similarly, a company with headquarters in California works with 50 partner farms in Ecuador and California, who ship roses directly to the customer from the farm (Donahue, 2017). This eliminates the middleman, allowing the farm to pay fair wages to the workers and cut down on some transportation (Donahue, 2017). The flowers are shipped in small batches on flights already planned to go the U.S., so the industry isn’t adding to global air pollution (Donahue, 2017). This company is also requiring their partner farms to abide by fair trade regulations, not using highly toxic chemicals, and shifting to biological controls and sustainable fertilizer (Donahue, 2017). They have also successfully control grey mold (that destroys the flowers) by propagating safe local molds that combat the grey mold (Donahue, 2017).
Another California company called FarmGirl Flowers, has a business model that focuses on less waste and purchasing flowers from American farms (Amelinckx, 2016). They are successful by offering customers a single choice and using every stem to reduce waste and costs, while selling quality flowers and paying farmers fair wages (Amelinckx, 2016).
Petal By Petal is a cut floral company located in NYC who buys from NY farmers and bike delivers the bouquets (Amelinckx, 2016). Interestingly, there has been interest in finding ways to use the green waste produced by the cut flower industry. The Journal of Power and Energy Engineering shows research by Wondwossen Bogale in his article Preparation of Charcoal Using Flower Waste, of taking the waste produced from the cut flowers to make Biochar, that is then sold as fuel, which can reduce the need to cut down trees for traditional charcoal (Bogale, 2016).
Locally in Humboldt County, The Sun Valley Group, one of the largest cut flower producers in Northern California grows cut bulbs such as lilies, tulips, irises and many other flowers (Sun Valley Group, 2010). This company owns farms in Arcata, Willow Creek, Oxnard, California, Myrtle Point Oregon, and St. Catharines, Ontario (Sun Valley Group, 2010).
The Sun Valley Group was the first California farm in 2005, to receive certification from Veriflora for environmentally and socially responsible practices of growing flowers and take pride in practicing sustainable floriculture. Some of their sustainable practices include:
-Sterilization of the soil in our greenhouses is done by steaming instead of chemicals.
-Composting green waste.
-Using composted bark and wood soil reduces the need of fungicides to control root rot.
-Crates are disinfected with hot water before tulips are planted.
-Using beneficial insects that parasitize on the leaf miners and kill them.
-Gerbera daisies are grown hydroponically. The drain water is collected, sterilized by using high temperatures and then reused.
-Converting 20 acres of land that had been covered with black top for the last 50 years, into prime agricultural soil. -Crop rotation schedules in the field include crops with grass and nitrogen-fixing legumes..
-Using sediment and water storage basin to collects runoff sediment from the fields (Sun Valley Group, 2010).
These are just a few ways that the cut flower industry is doing to make less of an impact environmentally and globally, but there is still a long way to go. The U.S. trade agreement with South America has expired and there has been a slight comeback of U.S. farmers growing cut flowers and customers asking for locally grown flowers Still, eighty percent of cut flowers and roses sold in the U.S. are imported versus the twenty percent grown in the U.S. What can we do individually to reduce the carbon footprint and conserve resources that are affected by the cut flower industry?
Western social conventions have created a floral industry that uses our planet's resources in an unsustainable way. Without awareness, the industry will continue to create hazards that permanently affect human, animal and plant survival. Recently, there are some changes in environmental ethics that are resulting in a shift to sustainable practices in the cut flower industry. We can be a major influence toward more change toward sustainable flower production by first moving towards changing the social conventions around cut flowers. By giving or expecting flowers that grow seasonally, we can eliminate the need for red roses on Valentine’s day. By not sending flowers that aren’t grown locally during the winter months it will reduce environmental impacts immensely, and there would not be a need for heated greenhouses, or long distance shipments. Buying cut flowers locally from farms or that are aimed toward fair trade, biological pest management, sustainable water and soil practices, and reducing waste will allow us to stop and smell the roses both figuratively and literally.
BIBLIOGRAPHY “A Brief History of Specialty Cut Flower Production.” NC State Extension News, N.C. Cooperative Extension, N.D. https://cutflowers.ces.ncsu.edu/welcome/brief-history-of-specialty-cut-flower-production/
Amelinckx, Andrew. “3 Startups That Are Disrupting the Flower Biz - And Helping Farmers, Too.” Modern Farmer, Petal By Petal, 16 Dec. 2016, modernfarmer.com/2016/12/3-startups-disrupting-flower-biz-helping-farmers/.
Bek, Dr.David. “Sustainable Business Is Good Business: A View from the Cut-Flower Industry.” Coventry University Research Blog, 18 May 2017, blogs.coventry.ac.uk/researchblog/sustainable-business-is-good-business-a-view-from-the-cut-flower-industry/.
Bogale, Wondwossen. “Preparation of Charcoal Using Flower Waste.” Journal of Power and Energy Engineering, vol. 05, no. 02, 2017, pp. 1–10. Scientific Research, Open Access, doi:10.4236/jpee.2017.52001.
(www.dw.com), Deutsche Welle. “Are Your Valentine's Roses Harming the Planet? | Global Ideas | DW | 14.02.2017.” DW.COM, www.dw.com/en/are-your-valentines-roses-harming-the-planet/a-37541408.
Donahue, Michelle Z. “These Flowers Come Straight From the Farm to Your Door.”Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 13 Feb. 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/these-flowers-come-straight-farm-your-door-180962151/.
Haragan, Brenna. “Those Roses You Bought Your Valentine at the Deli Were Grown 2,500 Miles Away.” Slate Magazine, 13 Feb. 2015,www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/roads/2015/02/colombia_s_flower_industry_on_farm s_outside_bogota_valentine_s_day_is_less.html.
Huss, Efrat, et al. “The Meaning of Flowers: A Cultural and Perceptual Exploration of Ornamental Flowers.” The Open Psychology Journal, vol. 10, no. 1, 2017, pp. 140–153., doi:10.2174/1874350101710010140.
Kassa, Mesay. “Review on Environmental Effects of Ethiopian Floriculture Industry.” Asian Research Journal of Agriculture, vol. 4, no. 2, Oct. 2017, pp. 1–13., doi:10.9734/arja/2017/31884.
Morgan, Sam. “Europe’s Love of Roses Sends Ripples through Kenyan Lake.”EURACTIV.com, 6 Dec. 2017, www.euractiv.com/section/africa/news/europes-love-of-roses-sends-ripples-through-kenyan-lak e/.
Robbins, Paul, et al. Environment and Society: a Critical Introduction. 2nd ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.
Star-Ledger, Leslie Kwoh/The. “Rose-Growing Industry Wilts in U.S. as South America's Blossoms.” NJ.com, The Star-Ledger, 6 Feb. 2011, www.nj.com/business/index.ssf/2011/02/as_us_rose-growing_industry_wi.html.
“Sustainable Floriculture.” Sun Valley Group, Joan Grytness Graphic Design , 2010, www.thesunvalleygroup.com/thesunvalleygroup/Sustainably_Grown.cfm.
Whelan, Carolyn. “Blooms Away: The Real Price of Flowers.” Scientific American,