Dick Skellington looks at how to ensure your Valentine Day flowers are ethically sourced.
In the developed world, do we think about where these flowers come from and how ethically they are produced? Do we care about the welfare of the workers who produced them, and their ability to sustain a living wage? Do we consider the environmental costs as the heart of much flower cultivation?
As consumers' green concerns have come to the fore, the cut-flower industry has gone to great lengths to persuade us that cut flowers can have low carbon footprints. Much of the data has focused on the benefits of growing flowers in naturally hot countries and then flying them into the UK instead of growing them in cold countries in hothouses, which can be very energy-intensive. This has led to a preference for flowers from Africa, rather than from European hothouses. Campaigners have also highlighted the importance of social justice, and making it easier for African people to make a living.
The flower industry is dominated by only a few countries: 83 per cent of the world's cut flowers come from Holland, Colombia, Ecuador and Kenya, and 73 per cent of the cut-flower production is imported by the US, the UK, Germany, Holland and France. It is important the developed world prioritises the carbon footprint of products from the developing world, and cut flowers are no exception.
But the carbon footprint of cut flowers encompasses much more than their transportation from one country or region to another. To measure genuine carbon footprints the entire lifespan of the flower should be considered. This tells us much about the carbon released from fossil fuels involved in flower cultivation, their fertilisation processes, their refrigeration impacts and their transportation, as well as the methane released from binned flowers.
Thinking about flower production in this way forces the consumer to ask important questions. Is it valid to use water for the mass production of inedible goods when this might be better used for producing food crops? Should we waste water resources producing a luxury product that is soon disposed of by people living in better socio-economic conditions in another country? This is particularly important given that most cut flowers are grown in developing countries where poverty is often endemic and where access to clean water can be problematic – especially if large corporations buy up land and its associated water rights.
'It will never rain roses; when we want to have more roses we must plant more trees'
So this year when you go to the major supermarkets to buy your roses do think carefully. Over 90 per cent of the flowers sold for Valentine's Day are imported, the majority from Colombia (for the US market) or Kenya (for the UK), and our major supermarkets all use these sources. For the impoverished East African country of Kenya, rose production is big business. Most of the 10,000 tons of roses we will buy for Valentine's Day will come from there.
The Kenyan floriculture industry is concentrated on the shores of Lake Naivasha – a complex and sensitive ecosystem which is polluted and which has suffered, in recent years, from a fall in its water level due to rose production.
Until three years ago the industry was growing steadily. However, a disputed election in 2007, was followed by violence and unrest which spread quickly to Naivasha. According to the 2008 report, 'Lake Naivasha: Withering Under the Assault of International Flower Vendors,' by Food & Water Watch and the Council of Canadians the flower industry is so important to the Kenyan Economy that in the face of such instability the army and police put most of their resources into guarding flower shipments instead of local people, so that the Valentine's Day delivery could reach European buyers in time. Since 2007 Kenyan roses have come at a cost of more than 100 deaths and the displacement of more than 300,000 people.
Worse for the region, production has resulted in significant increases in miscarriages, birth defects and other health problems associated with toxic chemicals.
In Kenya, some farmers have responded by taking a more proactive role and ensured their farms achieve Fairtrade status. This has enabled them to embark on a more sustainable production cycle, one which brings money back into the local workforce as well as subsidising local welfare and community improvements.
The origin of roses is not always clear and cheap roses are often grown by companies which cut corners to avoid legislation, selling them by auction in Amsterdam so buyers think they come from Holland. Most of the leading supermarkets have smartened up their act in the last few years, asserting that all suppliers must conform to the Ethical Trading Initiative, and they do all they can to ensure the ethical credentials of their sources and suppliers.
The best advice this St Valentine's Day is to purchase flowers with a certified Fairtrade logo clearly marked. That way you can be sure that the flower growers receive a premium to invest in their communities, or you could circumvent the ethical minefield and purchase seasonal British flowers. But do beware of mixed bouquets as the flowers in them can come from a range of sources, some of dubious ethical credentials.
Dick Skellington 6 February 2012
Cartoon by Gary Edwards