I want to buy you Flowers! (part 1)

With Valentine’s Day coming up, you might be thinking about buying someone you love a bouquet of flowers. Or, maybe you’re just tired of these cold, dreary days and want to brighten up a corner of your room. Then again, maybe you did the Apartment Therapy Fall Cure and a weekly floral splurge has made it to your permanent shopping list.
Whatever the reason, flowers are one of the fastest ways to bring a smile to someone’s face, especially mine!


Unfortunately, there can be a downside to flower buying, and it’s one that rarely gets discussed, even in circles where local food and organic produce is the norm. Since I don’t want to give up that little vase of happiness, I decided to figure out the most responsible way that I could enjoy this little treat.

Before we get there, however, let’s take a hard look at why there’s a problem in the first place. I have to warn you, this is a real downer, but once you know, you can take steps to change your behavior. In turn, if enough of us change our behavior, we can change the system. But first, buckle up, this is a bumpy ride.
There are three main problems with your average bouquet of flowers. The first problem arises in where it came from and how it got to your grocer’s stand. The second problem surrounds the working conditions of the people who picked and handled your flowers. The third, and possibly most horrifying issue is the completely unregulated cologne of pesticides that the bouquet is likely drenched in.

Let’s tackle the carbon footprint of that bouquet first. According to some studies, up to 70% of the flowers sold in the US are imported, and most of those come from Latin America, or even as far away as Africa. Those blooms have to be flown to market, and in most cases are done so in climate-controlled holds. According to the book The Game of the Rose, and the Sierra Club:
“Flying 44 tons [of flowers] from southern Africa to western Europe consumes 60 tons of jet fuel. Adding the energy consumption of trucking the flowers from the farm to the airport and from the airport to the customer, it is safe to say that a vase holding a bunch of ten imported flowers . . . contains well over half a liter of oil.”

Yes, those numbers left my jaw on the floor as well, and they don’t even take into account the energy used growing the flowers. Yikes.

Speaking of growing the flowers, that’s where our second issue enters the picture; the working conditions of the people tasked with growing and gathering those roses. According to LaborRights.Org:
* Workers earn poverty-level wages, making less than half of what is needed to meet basic needs
* 55% of women workers in Ecuador’s flower plantations have been the victims of some form of sexual harassment in the workplace
* 66% of Colombian and Ecuadorian flower workers suffer from work-related health problems
* Pesticide abuse is rampant—flower workers experience higher-than-average rates of premature births, congenital malformations, and miscarriages
* 70-80 hour work weeks are common in the high season.

From WaronWant, comes the report “Growing Pains” (pdf) which provides even more horrifying details:

Flower workers are constantly exposed to high levels of extremely toxic chemicals, and many report serious health effects, including skin lesions and allergies, respiratory problems, incidences of people fainting, headaches, eye problems and chronic asthma. The chemicals used are known to cause miscarriages and congenital malformations. Accidents often result in chemical burns. … In both Colombia and Kenya, workers report that if accidents occur or workers get sick, they are often fired without compensation. … A final safety hazard that is widely reported on flower farms is the quality of water available for workers to drink. Flower workers toil in hot greenhouses with a high level of physical activity, and need access to safe and clean water. Instead, most of them report that the water provided is visibly dirty and makes people sick. …

Are you still with me? I know this is tough to read, but there’s one more big problem to face – the environmental impact of all those pesticides.
According to an article in The Ecologist,
…Because cut flowers are grown in countries where little pesticide regulation exists, this encourages the use of obsolete and potentially dangerous chemicals. A vast range of pesticides, fertilisers and fumigants are used in producing cut flowers. Some of these, such as DDT, dieldrin, methyl bromide and methyl parathion are no longer in use, or deemed to dangerous to use, in the industrialised world…

Those chemicals then run off into the soil, nearby lakes and groundwater, doing unknown amounts of damage. According to a report sponsored by FoodandWaterWatch on the Kenyan area of Lake Naivasha (pdf)
The more than 30 flower farms in the Lake Naivasha region pose a number of serious ecological problems for Kenya’s rivers and for the lake, including loss of water, an unsustainable increase in the population because of the laborers they have attracted, and the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers.
Film-makers filming a documentary on water wars, noted that “We saw pipes pumping water from the lake to the flower green- houses and a ditch where waste water drained back into the lake. Pesticides and fungicides were plainly visible in a storage facility on the property.”

Further, from The Ecologist again,
in 2005 the World Health Organization deemed 36 per cent of the chemicals applied by Floraverde plantations (that is Colombian plantations certified to meet specific social and environmental standards) as extremely or highly toxic. … And while most studies focus on workers in the developing world, the issues are just as relevant to growers in developed countries. For instance, data from the Netherlands’ Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment shows that Dutch floral workers are often exposed to 60 times the recognized ‘safe’ level of these poisonous chemicals, often in an indoor situation, where residues and vapours may not dissipate. Similar concerns have been expressed about workers in the Californian flower industry.

And it’s not just the workers that should worry. From the same report:
According to Richard Wiles, vice president of research for the US Environmental Working Group, consumers are buying roses that, toxicity levels suggest, should be handled by workers wearing gloves. Wiles reports that pesticide residue on the petals of imported roses is fifty times that allowed on food imports.

Since the flowers are not meant to be eaten, there is absolutely no testing done on the imported blooms to see what chemicals they might be carrying. Think about that next time you put your face into a bouquet of roses, or scatter them into a romantic bath, or in my case, catch your kitten nibbling on them. (shudder)

Ok. So yeah. That was pretty depressing and I apologize. However, now that we’ve ripped off the band-aid, stay tuned for the sequel to this post, because I promise you that PLENTY of wonderful alternatives exist. In the meantime, here’s a little video that will make you smile, it’s where the title of this post came from.


7 thoughts on “I want to buy you Flowers! (part 1)

  1. You can catch a bit of the working conditions of flower workers in the movie Maria Full of Grace. So awful that the lead character turns to being a drug mule instead. Scary stuff!

  2. I work at Whole Foods and most of our flowers come from South America but we do have beautiful local lilies. There are also some organic options but they are still from South America.

  3. Pingback: I want to buy you flowers! (Part 2) « lorigami

  4. Thanks for the eye-opening stuff. I work with fresh flowers for weddings from all of these countries in question and will be more aware of the importance of gloves . . . however awkward this may be. I’ve just contacted my floral distributor to see what local or organic options I can offer to my brides. My daughter is getting married here in May and we’re currently collecting vintage flower brooches for her bouquet. All of the guest tables will have antique wire baskets filled with herb and vegetable plants that will be transplanted into our kitchen gardens at the Inn. Before we make any purchases, we are asking “Has this been used before or how can we use it again?” This is our mantra!

    • Hi Kip’s Mom! =)

      I love the bouquet idea, I actually have a box of brooch parts I can’t use, I need to drop them off for her.

      The Denton Flower Farm in Covington does work with weddings, so does the one at Serenbe, although I’m not sure what either process would entail. Mary Denton is who has flowers at the Morningside Market Kip goes to sometimes.

  5. Pingback: A little reminder about that dozen roses you might be sending next week « lorigami

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