“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.

Florverde standards include minimized water use via drip irrigation and rainwater collection, boilers with air pollution filters, integrated pest control to reduce pesticide use, and environmentally sensitive waste disposal. Among social programs and benefits offered to workers: educational and housing subsidies; day care centers; literacy education; higher than average wages; on-site health care; medical, disability and retirement insurance; and a floriculture school for individuals displaced by violence. Florverde is working to expand accredited facilities and to further cut energy use, according to Ernesto Vélez, chair of Asocolflores, the Colombian floral association.

Grow Local
Nevertheless, shipping from faraway farms introduces all kinds of inefficiencies. Roses, for example, can’t be sent long distances by sea; because they wilt at temperatures above 32 degrees Fahrenheit, they require constant refrigeration. So they are shipped by air, which produces more greenhouse gases. Transport by ship has its own problems. Because demand is uncertain at all times other than Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, suppliers rarely can fill a shipping container with a single species on a voyage, explains Christine Boldt, executive vice president of the Association of Floral Importers of Florida. Yet mixing flowers is not viable, because different varieties emit gases and transmit diseases that can spoil others. “Our product is very perishable,” Boldt says.

American consumers have several ways to minimize such environmental impacts. First, buy flowers grown locally. Only about one third of the cut flowers sold in the U.S. are domestic, and most of those are raised in California—notably orchids, mums, daffodils and irises. But even there, energy-gobbling hothouses are often the norm, so buyers might inquire about where flowers were grown and if they matured in hothouses or outdoors.

Another strategy is to opt for heartier breeds such as carnations, lilies, birds of paradise and ginger from Costa Rica that can survive the three-day boat trip at temperatures nudging 50 degrees F. Consumers ordering online might consider www.FlowerPetal.com, which contributes to a carbon-offset organization, based on total sales.

Finally, your beloved might forgo roses for berries, ferns or seasonal field-grown flowers such as sunflowers, larkspur or dahlias. Better yet, consider live flowers in pretty pots.

“Explore your local options,” urges Gabriela Chavarria, a bee specialist and director of the Science Center of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Native plants thriving in their natural environment require minimal heating or lighting before they are purchased. “Natives are part of the ecosystem,” Chavarria says. “They provide pollen for bees and have a tiny carbon footprint.”

What to Ask Florists
If you want to minimize the carbon footprint of flowers you buy, ask florists to show you locally grown varieties. Also, ask for plants that are field-grown instead of raised in energy-consuming hothouses. At retailers, search for eco-labels such as:

  • Florverde: Colombia’s stamp appears on blooms grown in accordance with environmental and labor standards, including minimal application of pesticides.
  • VeriFlora: This U.S. label confirms that growers have met requirements set by Scientific Certification Systems for environmental sustainability and social responsibility, including fair labor practices and low water and fertilizer inputs.
  • FlorEcuador: Ecuador’s guideline attests to good labor practices, low pesticide use and smart waste disposal.

Smart Buys
Based on its total flower sales every quarter, contributes to Carbonfund.org to support projects that reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Maintains lists of nurseries and farmers’ markets near you, where you can ask for local flowers rather than products that may have been shipped thousands of miles.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "The Real Price of Flowers."