Why you should care
Because sometimes making a simple gesture costs a whole hell of a lot.
We expect our phones to be “Made in China,” our inexpensive lamps in Sweden and our flowers in Kenya. Hang on … Kenya?
Millions have been led down the garden path in believing that flowers we buy locally — at our neighborhood florist or corner grocery — come from the region. But chances are the flowers you give or receive this Valentine’s Day have accumulated more air miles than diplomats.
Percentage of cut flowers sold in the U.S. that are imported
The international trade of cut flowers is a blooming industry, with an average annual growth of 6 percent and an estimated global trade volume of more than $100 billion a year . In the U.S. alone, more than $13 billion worth of cut flowers are sold annually, and the majority — a whopping 82 percent — are imported.
In the same way that fruit and vegetables are flown in to give you more than three weeks of strawberries and rhubarb each year, the flower industry has transitioned from a traditional model based on local production to an international one that leverages warmer climates and significantly lower labor costs in southern countries.
Even the industry’s queen, the Netherlands, has largely shifted its focus from production to trade. Instead of growing all those tulips themselves, the Dutch now host the global hub for 60 percent of the world’s dealings in cut flowers.
The Netherlands is also one of the biggest flower consumers, alongside the U.S., Germany, France, the U.K., Switzerland and Japan (the first five buy around three-quarters of the world’s cut flowers).
So where do your flowers grow? The U.S. imports mainly from Colombia, a nation that sells around 500 million tons of flowers for Valentine’s Day. Americans get 78 percent of their imported flowers from Colombia, followed by Ecuador and Mexico at 15 percent and 2 percent respectively. Europe, on the other hand, imports most of its flowers from Africa, with Kenya in the lead, followed by Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia.
Bothered by the quantity of air miles these blooms rack up? Turns out the picture isn’t as alarming as you’d think. Flower-producing countries enjoy humidity, temperature and soil fertility levels that are optimal for growth. Importing flowers actually saves huge amounts of energy by not having to light and heat greenhouses, especially in January and February, when global demand peaks just as northern temperatures plummet. So Ethiopian airfreight flowers might actually be greener than those grown in local glass houses.
The U.K. went so far as to declare that it was environmentally sound to buy imported flowers, answering concerns from consumers who buy about 10,000 tons of roses each Valentine’s Day.
Sadly, the flower trade does have a thornier underbelly when it comes to working conditions. The chemicals used for fertilization are often so toxic that a 2005 study found that half of the flower farm workers in Colombia and Ecuador suffered from health problems caused by overexposure to these substances.
Ethiopian airfreight flowers might still be greener than those grown in local glasshouses.
In the years since these revelations, the flower industry has encouraged hundreds of farms to become Fair Trade certified. This, in turn, has prompted many farms to clean up their practices, resulting in millions of fairly produced flowers being sold worldwide.
Kenya’s Oserian flower farm moves an average of a million roses a day and was one of the first to receive the seal of approval for providing free health care and education for all its workers and their families.
Such moves give farm workers hope for a brighter future. “My dream is to see all my children go to university, and I am so am grateful for the support that I have received. I urge people to continue buying more Fair Trade flowers so that we can continue improving our lives,” says Hellen Anyango, who works at Oserian Farm.
Which could bring us closer to guilt-free flower giving. At least in regards to where they come from. Now why you’re buying them and what you may be atoning for? Well, that’s still on you.