This Valentine’s Day, Americans will spend an estimated $2.3 billion on flowers. February 14th—the single biggest day of the year for the flower industry—accounts for 30 percent of annual flower sales, with roses selling more than anything else. The majority of these flowers grow outside of the country. The US imports 80 percent of its cut flowers throughout the year and of those imported blooms, Colombia provides the most, at 60 percent, followed by Ecuador, at about 20 percent.
War and the roses
Before the era of the failed US war on drugs, most of our flowers came from domestic flower growers. In 1991, to encourage Andean farmers to grow crops other than coca for the cocaine flooding the US, Congress passed the Andean Trade Preference Act, which lifted duties on certain Andean imports such as flowers—including a 6 percent tariff on Colombian roses. The Andean floral industry bloomed; the domestic floral industry withered. American producers couldn’t compete with the ideal, year-round flower-growing weather or the cheap and plentiful labor of the burgeoning Andean flower industry. According to the Washington Post, American production of roses plummeted by 95 percent.
On the one hand, supporting Colombian and Ecuadorian farmers in impoverished regions is a good thing. But from an environmental standpoint, importing these flowers is terrible for the planet. Because the bloom of fresh flowers fades so quickly, they must arrive in the US within days after cutting. Some travel those thousands of miles by ship and some by plane, burning huge quantities of planet-heating fossil fuels en route.
Planes, boats and automobiles
According to Amy Stewart, an investigative reporter and author of the 2007 book Flower Confidential, at any other time of year, flowers that arrive via plane travel in the cargo holds of passenger planes that would fly regardless of how many flowers filled them. But leading up to Valentine’s Day, the sheer volume of flowers shipped around the world requires dedicated cargo planes. In 2017, for example, for the three weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, 30 cargo planes, each filled with over a million flowers, flew every day from Colombia to Miami. Once they arrive in the US, some of the imported flowers catch connecting flights to Japan or Russia, where consumers pay exorbitant prices for them.
After traveling thousands of miles to the US by air (or sea) in refrigerated holds, the flowers then ride in refrigerated trucks to their next stop. This study found that refrigerated vehicles generate 15 percent more carbon dioxide than their non-refrigerated counterparts. When flowers then arrive at refrigerated warehouses, workers repackage them into bouquets before the flowers move on (while refrigerated) to their final destination—grocery stores, big-box stores such as Walmart and other retailers.
All of this transport comes in addition to sometimes questionable labor and environmental standards back on the flower farm. Certifications in Colombia and Ecuador have sprung up to address these concerns. One of these programs in Colombia, Florverde Sustainable Flowers, certifies flowers that meet a long list of standards such as labor rights, health and safety, water management, soil conservation, safe handling of pesticides, waste management, biodiversity, energy efficiency and so on. According to the Floreverde website, every year, the organization certifies about 1.3 billion stems. Based on the 4 billion Colombian flowers exported to the US, a figure from a Washington Post article, approximately a third of Colombian flowers are certified. (The portion could be higher or lower as the Washington Post figure cites 2017 figures.)
Certified sustainable or not, most imported flowers grow in huge monocultures, which degrade the soil. Flowers also consume vast amounts of water. And synthetic pesticides can harm not only farmworkers coming into contact with these chemicals but also people living downstream. Researchers found that non-worker children in Ecuador experience altered short-term neurological behavior during peak pesticide spraying of the Mother’s Day crop (the second biggest single day for flowers in the US after Valentine’s Day).
Even among flowers grown without synthetic pesticides or those certified Colombian flowers that meet higher standards for pesticides, water usage and other environmental concerns, the greenhouse gas emissions generated by flower transport cannot be certified away.
So what are some alternatives to Valentine’s Day roses?
As I said, supporting Andean farmers does create jobs but flying hundreds of millions of ephemeral roses thousands of miles during a climate crisis in order to ensure they maintain their short shelf-life is madness. We grow beautiful flowers here. We may not find the red roses marketed to us every Valentine’s Day as the only suitable flower for the occasion but we can find something beautiful.
You’ve likely heard of slow food but have you heard of slow flowers? Founded by Debra Penzing, author of the book Slow Flowers, The Slow Flowers Society aims to replicate for flowers what slow food has done for food—encourage consumers to buy local, diverse, seasonal and sustainable offerings from small growers.
Consumers looking for slow flowers can search the movement’s website here for nearby member growers, the number of which grew by over a third from 2020 to 2021, due to Covid. Between supply chain problems and people staying home and wanting to treat themselves, Americans have been splurging on flowers.
Look here at the gorgeous blooms available in February at the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market, for example. This farmer-owned co-op of growers supplies the Pacific Northwest with diverse local flowers, foliage and plants. If your recipient doesn’t like any of these, you may want to rethink your relationship…
When you buy slow flowers, you may not find those ubiquitous red roses but you will find beautiful flowers. Just because we can buy anything we want in the US at any time—if we have the cash to pay for it—doesn’t mean we should. Supporting small local growers not only benefits the planet, it helps strengthen our communities. (Go here for more benefits of shopping small and local.)
Farmers’ market flowers
If a farmers’ market operates near you in the winter, you may find beautiful local flowers there. My kids bought me the flowers pictured below last Mother’s Day, so early May but vendors at our market do have beautiful flowers now as well (I just don’t have a picture of them).
The flowers sat in a jar of water in an open-air booth at the farmers’ market until my daughters bought them. They traveled a short distance to reach the farmers’ market and later, to reach me. After they died, they went into the compost bin, leaving me with one more mason jar to put to work. (I also could have dried the flowers or probably made a natural dye with them.)
If you want to know how your farmer grows their flowers, just ask! I have found that the farmers at the market will happily answer questions about how they grow their food—or flowers.
Buy plants for the garden
If your recipient gardens, buy them plants or bulbs. Gardeners can never have enough plants. My kids bought me a rose bush on Mother’s Day when they were quite little (okay, their dad bought it but they picked it out). It just started to bloom again this month.
You can’t very well grow a bouquet of flowers for Valentine’s Day at this late date but… if you have a yard, you can grow your own beautiful flowers for a different, later occasion. The calla lilies pictured below finally opened up last week in my backyard. They are so beautiful! And I do absolutely zero work to earn them. They simply pop up every winter, unaided.
A gift by any other name
You could celebrate differently and not buy anything (!). Yes, buying nothing is an option. How about baking a treat (my cookbook includes a fabulous sourdough brownie recipe!), going out for dinner, bringing home dinner in your own clean containers (some restaurants do allow this!) or writing a poem for your loved one?
We can show we care for each other while also caring for the planet. In fact, caring for the planet shows we do care for each other.