- Anna Taylor
Call me cynical but a commercial determined date for romance is not that romantic. Yet this date is one, somehow, we have come to both accept and fully buy into. Valentines Day, and particularly the importing of roses for sale in February, is a glaring example of the changes needed in our systems and culture to prioritise a future, where people and planet are treated of equal importance.
Valentine’s day traditionally marked a time when a woman might wait for a man (because you may not know your suitor) to declare his love by way of a card, trinkets, chocolates and/or flowers. Tokens of sweetness, delight and beauty. Women waiting for symbols. Men declaring and gifting. And on a leap year, unusually, women ‘were allowed to’ propose to a man!
There are plenty of ‘galentines’ reclaiming Valentine’s with fun and other gestures of love that don’t cost the earth. But according to ‘finder.com', over 76% of Brits celebrate Valentine's day and about 36% of gifts are flowers. Brits currently spend over a billion on Valentine’s day, and whilst that figure is much reduced from previous years, it is the single biggest date for florists in the calendar. But February? At the end of the winter season when few flowers naturally grow in the UK. I smell something, and it’s certainly not the imported roses.
Until the 1950’s, the UK was entirely self-sufficient in flowers, boasting a network of local growers connected by the railways. Interestingly this era coincided with the peak of council house construction, often with generous garden spaces to grow food and flowers, a post-World War II tradition, reminiscent of scarcer time. By 1978, building significantly reduced, and at the same time house prices, privatisation and the global farming systems rapidly grew. Gradually, imports of flowers overtook UK production, pricing local growers out of the market with an estimate of just 10% UK grown flowers sold here.
Before this, many had access to space and time to grow their own. A disconnect with our natural world came with lean cuisine, electrical goods, MTV and global travel. Now I love my washing machine and an 80’s music video with all my heart, but it saddens me how separated we have become to each other and to our own environments with the rise of globalisation.
Flowers shouldn’t be a luxury, they should be able to be appreciated and cherished by all. However, the unequal distribution of land ownership makes it increasingly difficult for individuals to cultivate their own or farm flowers.
For millennia we celebrated occasions with gathered seasonal flowers and foliage. Now, options are more likely to come from imported flowers. Over 70% of flowers sold in the UK are bought from supermarkets but their cheap prices often hide the true cost of production. The treatment of workers, flora and fauna, pollution of water systems. Slavery and/or abuse is known across the industry.
Importers are doing what they can to improve practices but changes in laws and labelling are needed. The current systems remain complex in order to provide a long lasting vase of scentless flowers somehow meant to represent the natural world and a love that can’t be manufactured. Although legislation is underway to prevent ‘greenwashing’, companies are not required to disclose the harm their products inflict on people and planet. How about a label akin to that on a packet of cigarettes showing the damage made to our world and to people when producing cheap products, food, disposable clothes, flowers, plants, everything. Is that really too much?
Ideally we’d opt for certified products that adhere to stringent standards. But how is it that one must prove their business is ethical whilst others operate unchecked, prioritising profit over sustainability? It is a great swindle of our financial systems that we have the gift of choice but really it is a burden on the individual, not the producer.
This broken system epitomised by a rose sold in February, perpetuates a race to the bottom, where cheap production has great cost to people and planet.
Hope lies in fantasy of radical changes; subsidising organic products, taxing harmful practices, promoting regenerative farming and reducing long supply chains to the local. Imagine a world where nutritious food is affordable, flowers are grown in the UK again, biodiversity flourishes, where we are deeply connected to our producers and each other.
Our responsibility lies beyond our purchasing power; it’s about how we communicate, what we consume, read, listen to, where we go. True romance lies in kindness and consideration for our planet and one another.
We may not fully comprehend the consequences of our purchases. But roses in February perpetuates what has become a societal norm, passive complicity that hinders progress towards equality and sustainability. Instead, let’s grow the revolution, buy a bare-root rose plant and nurture your own this year.