Valentine’s Day means saying it with flowers. Last year Australians imported more than 5.22 million rose stems between February 1 and 14, mostly from Kenya. Assuming typical bouquets of 24 roses, that’s 217,500 bouquets sold in two weeks.
The problem is that our pursuit of goodwill and affection towards humanity through the giving of cut flowers is hurting the number-one lady in all of our lives: Mother Nature. If those 217,500 bouquets were each wrapped in 75cm of plastic cellophane, that adds up to more than 163km of plastic wrapping used in a two-week period – just for roses, just in Australia.
But facts about cellophane probably won’t win over your sweetheart. So with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, let’s consider making smarter, more sustainable flower purchases.
In Australia alone, there are more than 900 flower farms intensively cultivating 4,470 hectares in order to supply almost 2,000 florists. However, the majority of cut flowers sold in Australia actually originate overseas, with imports from Ecuador alone valued at $1.9 million in 2015. If you’re asking yourself “why are delicate flowers shipped halfway around the world?” this is a great question.
Countries near the Equator, like Ecuador, benefit from good growing conditions, including 12 hours of daylight all year round. In these regions, the contribution of the flower industry to the economy of small or less developed countries is often significant.
In eastern Africa, for example, flowers account for more than 10 per cent of total exports, second only to tea.
Lower wages in countries like Ecuador and Kenya also contribute to the economics of flying cut flowers around the world. Unfortunately, this often comes at a cost for local growers and pickers, who experience poor working conditions.
The thorny carbon issue
In the United States, the roughly 100 million roses grown, shipped and purchased on a typical Valentine’s Day produce some 9,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, from field to florist.
But, as with most things in our complex and busy world, the question of a flower’s carbon footprint isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. The Netherlands is one of the world’s biggest exporters of cut flowers, where the majority are grown in heated or refrigerated green houses.
Maintaining the controlled environmental conditions inside these buildings requires artificial light, heat and cooling, so each rose grown in The Netherlands contributes an average of around 2.91kg of CO₂ to the atmosphere. In contrast, a single rose grown on a farm in Kenya contributes only 0.5kg.
This is largely because Kenyan hot houses do not use artificial heating or lighting, and most farm workers walk or cycle to work. As a result, flowers grown in tropical regions are sometimes considered low-carbon (of course, this doesn’t always factor in international transport).
In Kenya and other countries, chemicals such as methyl bromide (and others that are banned in countries like the US) are regularly imported in significant quantities by flower growers for pest control.
Worryingly, methyl bromide is an ozone-depleting substance. In some cases, run-off of these chemicals from growing fields adjacent to water bodies, such as Kenya’s Lake Naivasha, has resulted in the collapse of fish stocks that are crucial to local communities.
So what can you do?
We don’t want to be responsible for a downturn in expressions of love (or a corresponding uptick in conflict), and the good news is that there are plenty of eco-friendly ways to show your devotion.
The best option is to grow your own flowers to give as gifts. You can also give a living plant that can grow in your garden for years to come, reminding you of that special person and day. This is a rule in both of our households, and one our husbands are happy to accommodate – our gardens have never looked so good!
If growing or giving living plants isn’t an option, go for locally grown organic flowers, as this means fewer “flower miles”. Native species or hardy breeds like lilies and birds of paradise require fewer resources and survive for longer in transport, meaning there’s less wastage.
It’s also worth asking (or insisting) that your local florist switch from plastic cellophane wrapping to butcher’s paper (or similar).
To get you on your way, here are some sustainable flower growers:
The Little Flower Farm (Melbourne)
Organically certified flowers from Byron Bay, so pure they’re actually sold as an edible product
Give a (living) gift that keeps on giving for months or years to come, from companies such as Growing Gifts
Jennifer Lavers is a research scientist at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania and Fiona Kerslake is a research fellow in viticulture and fermentation, University of Tasmania.