By Jessica Sofizade and Lisa Legrand
Valentine’s day is one of the most important days for florists worldwide. The tradition of offering flowers, chocolates, jewellery, wine or other gifts to loved ones has become a very lucrative business, generating millions of pounds in the UK.
While this year might look quite different, with no lavishly decorated restaurants filled with enamoured couples, it is still a time where you might decide to mark the occasion by purchasing some beautiful red roses. But have you paused to consider the environmental impact of your choice?
The cut flower industry in the UK is huge: ornamental plants and flowers were worth £1.4 billion in 2019. The vast majority of cut flowers in the UK are imported; the main exporter remains the Netherlands, but other significant global growers and exporters include Ecuador, Colombia, Kenya and Ethiopia.
Transporting flowers is a tricky business. Extreme efforts are made to ensure that they arrive in the best condition possible, without having wilted or sustaining any damage. In order to stay fresh, flowers are kept refrigerated in a “cold-chain” from farm to lorry to plane or boat. A lot of energy is therefore required not only in the transportation of the flowers, but in their preservation, since they lose 15% of their value for every day spent travelling. Roses, the symbol of valentine’s day, are increasingly produced by Kenya, which “supplies one third of all roses sold in the EU” and “are now Kenya’s second largest export after tea”.
However, this does not necessarily mean that carbon emissions could be reduced by importing flowers from countries closer to home. The difference in climate has a large impact in the way that flowers are grown, since northern countries must depend upon greenhouses to meet the year-long demand for flowers regardless of when they are in season. In fact:
“A study from Cranfield University in the UK compared the carbon cost of roses grown in the Netherlands and Kenya and sold in the UK using life cycle analysis. The research revealed that while more carbon was emitted in the transportation of the flowers from Kenya to the UK, there was a much higher carbon cost associated with the production phase of the flowers grown in the Netherlands thanks to intensive farming in greenhouses requiring large energy inputs”.
Pesticides are also widespread in the production of flowers, to encourage their growth and repel pests. For growers producing several different types of flowers, all of which attract different pests, this can result in a “cocktail of pesticides” with a significant negative impact on the local environment, on pollinators, and on producers in contact with these chemicals. Moreover, since flowers are not edible crops, they are also exempt from regulations on pesticide residues. A report by Greenpeace in 2014 showed that of 86 samples analysed, pesticide residues were found in 84 (97,6%) of these flowering plants. So you might want to think twice before sticking your nose into that sweet smelling rose.
Moreover, the report claims that:
“… usage of various bee-harming pesticides to produce flowers which will eventually be grown in domestic gardens, balconies and public parks is significant. Through such use institutional buyers and private consumers are made unwitting accomplices in contaminating the environment with pesticides and putting bees at risk.”
Some movements have been launched which allow us to buy and enjoy cut flowers without worrying about the impact our purchase might have on the environment, including the Slow Flower movement (US & international), and Flowers From The Farm (UK).
If flowers remain your main choice after all this demonstration, buy seasonal and local flowers. Here are some flowers that can all be found across the UK in February: Mimosa, Windflower, Peruvian Lily, Spider Orchid, and many more.
It is also possible to find local initiatives around your town. In the region Haut de France, it is possible to pick your own flowers 7 days a week, 24 hours a day in 8 different fields. The principle is simple: we enter the field, we pick the flowers that we like, and we pay the bill at the end using a machine. No one is there to watch or to take the money. The prices are displayed and the managers depend on the goodwill of the customers. Beyond the pleasure of picking your bouquet yourself, the other advantage lies in the prices, much cheaper than at traditional florists. For a bouquet of tulips, for example, you have to pay 50 cents for a stem, 10 euros for a bouquet of 22 stems. The initiative was so well received by the public that in a single year 8 other flower fields were created.
An original gift for Valentine’s Day is also to plant a tree. Many associations are dedicated to environmental causes such as Woodland Trust and The National Forest who plant, restore, protect and care for woods to promote a UK rich in woods and trees. It is possible to plant a tree from £5 with the National Trust association, and you’ll receive a certificate to commemorate your gift. Perhaps with your beloved you could choose this year to give together a gift to the planet?
What about adopting a tree for one year? It’s the new shared agriculture project of the Italian company Nido Di Seta. It’s a reciprocal exchange, you take care of one of their trees and you will receive the products of the company supply chain at home. Prices for adoption start at 45 euros and go up to 195 euros. After that, you will receive directly at home the products you have chosen during the adoption, such as a neck warmer, Keffiyeh, ties, scarves, a scarf in pure pacific silk, organic products, etc.
A lot of peoples, young or old, are taking initiatives to help to create a better world and to keep the planet safe. Get informed about the initiatives in or around your town, you could have great surprises. And moreover, you can help them in this crisis period to keep their innovative and audacious companies on track.
Now it is clear why the purchase of roses is not a reasoned and responsible purchase for Valentine’s Day – because of the energy costs of production and exports, as well as the impact of all the pesticides used which are less controlled, more numerous and more dangerous for health and the environment. We are not trying to keep you away from your florist, but we are trying to encourage you to consume in a more reasoned and responsible way. Buy seasonal flowers, support local initiatives, adopt or plant a tree or even support small merchants around your home.
So this valentine’s day show some love not just for your cherished one, but for the planet, for the bees, and for local producers by supporting a more environmentally friendly flower production. The prices are accessible to everyone and the choice is wide. This year make a choice that will have good repercussions in the long term, because today we are building the world of tomorrow for our children.
More research & info here:
Adopt a tree : https://www.nidodiseta.com/it_IT/
Seasonal flowers in UK : https://slowflowers.com/
How to bee friendly ? : https://friendsoftheearth.uk/nature/10-easy-ways-help-bees-your-garden
By Jessica Sofizade and Lisa Legrand
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of Kairos Europe, its partners or their employees.
Update: The flowers at the Cueillette Fleurie in the Haut de France region are now ready to be picked, as you can see in the beautiful photos below! (April 2021)