How Consumers can Demand Sustainability from the Floral Design Industry
Worldwide, flowers are gifted as a romantic gesture, in in show of sympathy, to congratulate, and as a get-you-off-the-hook card when you haven’t been to visit your Nonna in far too long. You know it, your Nonna knows it, but when she sees those pretty little faces smiling up at her, all is forgiven “Sono bellissimi”. They are a quintessential part of celebrations like weddings and events, launches and conferences. We find them at receptions, in hotel lobbies, in shop windows. Once we begin to pay attention, we realise that flowers are all around us. Floral design takes many different forms and caters to many different needs, but it has one big problem: for all appearances of beauty and innocence, it is one of the bad guys when it comes to polluting the environment.
Now you might be asking yourself the question, “so, should people stop buying flowers?” No! On the contrary I want more people to buy flowers (my boyfriend included) and support their local florists and farmers. But it needs to be done consciously. As a consumer, you have a responsibility and the ability to make a change. This blog will give you tips on what to look for and provide some alternative suggestions which will help to make sure that your flowers are sustainable.
Only upon entering the field of floristry did I realise the negative impact flowers can have on the environment (and on your eyes – the audacity some people exhibit when combining colours is mind-blowing, but that’s not important here). In my training I already began to notice that we were creating an awful lot of waste. We had to buy and use flowers from the markets, stick them in floral foam in rigid strict structures, and wrap them in hideous paper, all for the sake of practicing floral design. They always ended up in the bin. I used to try to prolong the lives of my creations by giving them to my Mum, poor thing. Basically, the only thing that changed when I started working was that we didn’t see them end up in the bin, because they went through the customer first. It was only when I started to read into the topic, and experiment in my free time, that I realised there was an alternative to creating so much waste. The practices that I mention below, are used in most mainstream traditional floristry and can be replaced with more sustainable alternatives.
Many florists use a green foam, called floral foam or Oasis, as a base for their arrangements. This gives florists a lot of control as the flowers are held in exactly the right place. Floral foam soaks up water, keeping flowers hydrated for several days, and providing great stability for arrangements. But there is a high price to all this convenience. The foam is a plastic made from phenol and formaldehyde that isn’t biodegradable. It is rarely used more than twice because after the first use the foam resembles squidgy green Swiss cheese and no longer holds the flowers effectively. The used foam ends up in landfill and the residue in water systems, where it causes harm to organisms. Many toxic chemicals are involved in the making of the foam and it contains known carcinogens, making it harmful for humans too, not just the environment. The highest risk comes from cutting the foam when it is dry, and if it is eaten, so beware of curious toddlers looking for a snack. (Mannix, 2018)
So how can you avoid this mean green foam? The first option is to buy cut flowers, which are not in any sort of base, that can be put into your vase of fresh water at home. Alternatively, you can look for arrangements that use a chicken wire base or a floral pin frog, a device placed at a bottom of a vase that holds the stems in place. If you’re unsure, talk to your florist.
Another important thing to look out for is where your flowers come from. The four main exporters of cut flowers worldwide are Kenya, the Netherlands, Colombia and Israel (Tree- Nation, 2020). It is not only the shipping of these flowers all over the globe that leave a significant CO2 footprint, but also the growing process. In fact, flowers which are grown in Europe, such as the roses grown in the Netherlands, produce more CO2 than those grown in Africa and transported to Europe. This is because while the African climate supports the growing of flowers, European flowers must be grown in hothouses which have to be heated, especially during the colder months. They are also artificially lit, warmed and cooled, to simulate a conducive environment and this uses an immense amount of energy. A study conducted in 2007 found that growing 12,000 roses in Kenya created 6,000 kg of CO2 emissions, whereas the same amount grown in hot houses in the Netherlands produced an astounding 35,000kg of CO2. (Whelan, 2009)
A critical factor to be aware of are the pesticides that are used to keep the flowers bug-free. Of course, no one wants a half-eaten flower, but no one wants to be breathing in toxic pesticides when they stick their nose into a luscious looking rose either. Especially in third-world countries, the chemical laws are so lax that growers even use substances which have been banned in Europe. Aside from the risk this poses to consumers and florists, the most significant risk is for farmers that handle these chemicals daily. These toxins often end up in the earth and in waterways, causing serious harm to the species that live there. If you’re into composting, you should never throw cut flowers that have been treated with pesticides into your compost bin, otherwise you’ll have some very unhappy worms (Wainwright & Day 2014).
So how can you make sure your flowers aren’t being flown first-class in special energy intensive cooled conditions, drenched in pesticides, to get to you? By buying local instead. Find florists that purchase only from local suppliers or visit that flower field down the road where you can pick your own. This eliminates all of the excessive energy consumed by transport and supports local farmers at the same time. However, buying local doesn’t guarantee that your flowers are pesticide-free. Although it is comforting to know that as chemical regulations in Switzerland are stricter than in Kenya for example and that you won’t end up with any agent orange on your flowers, there is an even better alternative: buy organic! Again, organic doesn’t mean entirely pesticide-free, but here the regulations are even stricter and only non-synthetic products can be used (European Commission, 2018). Buying local also means buying seasonal, which brings the added joy of variation. In winter you can buy local tulips and hyacinths, in spring poppies and freesias. Summer offers many luscious heady flowers and in autumn colourful plump dahlias are the way to go.
One last thing to be aware of is the wrapping that your flowers come in, most commonly ribbons, coloured paper and cellophane sheets. These are generally used once and then thrown away, just like your Christmas present wrapping. This is a really careless waste of resources. Again, here there are alternatives that are even now being explored by the international florist network giant, Interflora. They now have their own range of biodegradable cellophane, recycled ribbons and eco-friendly gift boxes (Interflora, 2020). Alternatively, your florist might have bark, or hessian for wrapping, both of which are biodegradable and can add a natural touch to a bouquet. You can also take your flowers naked without any wrapping at all, if they’re not shy. The important thing is to always ask what options are available, and to know that it is your choice.
Thankfully, sustainable floristry is a growing trend in the industry. Natural arrangements that follow the form of the flowers and do not require floral foam are becoming the fashion. Buying local and seasonal is becoming the cool thing to do. Most importantly the awareness of the impact that the floral industry has on the environment, is growing. Farmers, florists and consumers alike are taking action to turn this industry into one which works with nature instead of destroying it. This means that for you as a consumer it will become easier to find florists that work in more sustainable ways, and to consume more consciously. I hope this blog has helped you to know what to look for, and how to choose sustainable the next time you buy flowers.
European Commission, 2018, Pesticides in agriculture, https://ec.europa.eu/info/food-farming-fisheries/sustainability-and-natural-resources/biodiversity-and-land-use/pesticides_en
Interflora, 2020, Sustainability at Interflora, https://www.interflora.co.uk/content/sustainable-packaging/
Liam Mannix, 2018, Floral foam: How bad is the stuff at the bottom of your roses?, https://www.smh.com.au/national/floral-foam-how-bad-is-the-stuff-at-the-bottom-of-your-roses-20180212-p4z02o.html
Tree- Nation, 2020, The environmental impact of the cut-flower industry, https://tree-nation.com/projects/inside-tree-nation/article/5956-the-environmental-impact-of-the-cut-flower-industry
Wainwright, H., Jordan, C., Day, H, 2014 , Environmental Impact of Production Horticulture, https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Henry_Wainwright/publication/264860153_Environmental_Impact_of_Production_Horticulture/links/57a1f3ed08aeef35741ca372/Environmental-Impact-of-Production-Horticulture.pdf
Whelan, Carolyn, 2009, Blooms Away: The Real Price of Flowers, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/environmental-price-of-flowers/
1 Reply to “Get Blooming Sustainable”
This was a very interesting read! As an eco-conscious consumer and flower-lover, I have been meaning to read up on this topic for a long time. Especially now during the quarantine time, knowing that many small businesses suffer financially, I have made it my duty to support my favourite florists by buying a bouquet weekly. When purchasing flowers through their website, they also offer a seasonal bouquet, but I haven’t informed myself where the flowers in it come from. When going to pick up the flowers at the shop, I see they are growing some portion of their flowers themselves in the adjoining facilities. Once the quarantine is over, I will ask them about this for sure!
Though I have heard about the amounts of pesticides and energy used in the flower industry, I was shocked to read the numbers in your post… 6’000-35’000 kg of CO2 for 12’000 roses! I hope the trend towards sustainable, local and seasonal floristry continues, and that consumers start to understand the impact of their choices. From this post I take the responsibility to inquire and demand for more sustainable options.
I have also started growing my own bee and butterfly friendly flowers on my terrace, so I can enjoy the process of gardening and growing them, while also supporting the local ecosystem. Picking and assembling flowers is such a joy, and I will keep my eyes open for that flower field down the road now during summer.