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Floral Footprint: The Real Price of Flowers

The right varieties grown in the right places leave a far smaller environmental footprint

“Roses are red….” They are also fragile and almost always flown to the U.S. from warmer climes in South America. In Europe, roses are most often imported from Africa. On either continent the flowers are hauled in temperature-controlled trucks and locked up overnight in cold boxes before their final journey to the local florist. According to Flowerpetal.com, which tries to limit the environmental impact of floral purchases, supplying the 100 million roses ordered for a typical Valentine’s Day produces 9,900 tons of carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) emissions. So what’s a lovesick but “green” beau to do?

First, don’t assume that imported roses are more environmentally hostile than domestic ones. A 2007 study from Cranfield University in England found that raising 12,000 Kenyan roses resulted in 13,200 pounds of CO 2 ; the equivalent number grown in a Dutch hothouse accounted for 77,160 pounds. (Both examples included energy used in production and delivery to European airports by airplane or truck.) Roses from the Netherlands required artificial light, heat and cooling over the eight- to 12-week growing cycle, whereas Africa’s strong sun provided much of what was needed.

Indeed, energy inputs are a key part of the total emissions equation. In Ecuador, for example, “the low-carbon impact of flower farms was evident. Greenhouses used no artificial heating or lighting, and most farm workers walked or biked to work,” observes Amy Stewart, author
of Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers. “In the U.S., most flowers grown commercially come from climate-controlled greenhouses, and many workers drive to the farm.”

For the socially conscious, other considerations are the use of natural resources and job creation in impoverished areas. Overall, “importing flowers is a thorny issue,” explains Stuart Orr, a freshwater manager at World Wildlife Fund International in Switzerland. “Kenya’s Lake Naivasha is one of the most perfect places to grow flowers—at a high altitude, with plenty of water and sunshine. And flower farms employ people and generate income. [But] they are also big water and pesticides users.” He argues, however, that the same flower farms spur development and could, by changing their ways, lessen water and pesticide use. For example, at the Oserian flower farm on Lake Naivasha, roses are now grown with geothermal waste heat to save energy. And no roses are raised within a third of a mile of the lake to prevent pesticide runoff from reaching it. (Five years ago growers were accused of allowing pesticides to pollute the lake, home to hippopotamuses.)

Check the Label
The Cranfield study of the U.K.’s imported roses has no equivalent for U.S. sources, but Colombia, a major exporter, uses a “Florverde” (“greenflower”) label to indicate flowers that have been raised in an eco-friendly manner. Established in 1996, the label today appears on certain bouquets sold at Wal-Mart and other big chains. The label indicates that flowers were only grown on Florverde-certified farms, where laborers receive proper benefits. Roughly one in five U.S.-bound blooms from Colombia is now Flor­verde-certified. The stringent standards are verified by annual inspections done by Icontec, a certifying body in Bogotá that is accredited by the American National Standards Institute.

Similar “sustainable,” “fair trade” and “organic” bouquets are increasingly available at the mega-retailer Sam’s Club, natural food stores, FTD-certified shops and Web sites such as Flowerbud, Organic­Bouquet, 1-800-Flowers and TransFair. Because of the expensive nature of going organic, however, international “organic” brands may have laxer guidelines than those in the U.S., authorizing less, but not zero, pesticide use. The brands also may be produced from cuttings that were not organically grown. Labels such as VeriFlora in the U.S. each have their own standards and inspection schemes.

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