This is not a simple question and there is not a simple answer, but with the environmental and ethical impacts of our demands for unseasonal flowers becoming ever more prevalent it is a question we need to ask ourselves.
Poster by Rosanna Morris
At SSAW our work is dictated by the British growing season. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of the UK food and farming community, we have become much more accustomed to thinking about the provenance of the food we consume, who grew or raised it, and how they did it. There has been great attention drawn to the crippling effects of mass mono-culture food farming on our environment and our soils, and the threat of extinction of so many species due to destruction of their natural habitats. Yet so far, the same attention has not been drawn to the floriculture industry.
The negative impacts of the global floriculture industry drove us to work strictly seasonally, to grow our own flowers so we could use them in the knowledge that we have transparency in the supply chain. However, for us, advocating for positive change in the flower growing industry in the UK comes not only with the responsibility for the land we steward ourselves but to help consumers make more informed choices about the flowers they’re buying wherever they are from.
We believe it is entirely possible to mimic the farm-to table practice in food with a genuine farm-to-vase equivalent. What’s more, unlike industries with complicated production processes, flowers grown regeneratively (or in a similar ethical vein) can have a genuinely positive impact on our environment and help reverse the damage caused by intensive farming techniques: increasing biodiversity and pollinator populations and keeping our soil healthy, helping to sequester carbon, all at the same time as bringing the joy that beautiful flowers always do.
We hope that this goes without saying but our intention here is only to open discussion and show that there are other options out there, not shut down any florist who is offering roses for Valentine’s Day. Facing up to uncomfortable truths is hard but we want to be gentle with each other, creating a safe space to have vital conversations without the fear of shame or retribution. In order to make positive change we need to unite.
SSAW stands for Spring Summer Autumn Winter. The seasons and what they mean for produce, be that food of flowers, is integral to what we do. The word seasonal is dictionary defined as something ‘available or happening during a particular time of the year’. For organic produce, this means something naturally grows or can grow at a particular time of year in a particular place. Unfortunately, with the globalisation of the floriculture industry the relationship to locality seems to have been lost and the word seasonal has become overused to a point that it has almost become meaningless. This is by no means necessarily the fault of the florist, it is simply that the industry has lost touch with working in a seasonal way, instead business decisions are led by short-term economics rather than long-term ethical and environmental implications. For entire working careers roses, to take as an example, have been available from wholesalers all year round.
Although roses can now be grown almost all year round, the natural conditions for roses to grow do not exist all round, and they certainly do not exist for 250 million blooms to be ready for one particular date in February. (Auction house Royal FloraHolland alone, sold a total of 152 million roses in the two weeks leading up to Valentine's Day last year.) In order to meet this demand, locations are chosen for their optimal climates and then suitable environments are artificially created through temperature regulated greenhouses and chemicals often at great expense of the local environs with pesticide run off and high water and energy usage. Whilst labour might be cheaper, the environmental costs are usually higher and there are also hidden costs to human health with working conditions and pesticide much less regulated in some places. Flowers are particularly perishable, meaning they need to be flown and trucked and then refrigerated as opposed to shipped in order to arrive fit for use. Whilst vast improvements have been made in recent years and there are farms out there with admirable intentions we need these to be the rule not the exception.
We are pushing for systematic change in consumer habits: we want the gifts we give to be just as loving to our planet and the people on it as they are to the recipient. In the British gardening calendar, February is the time to prune a rose, giving nature a helping hand along its way to producing the first sweet smelling blooms in May, gifting us with their presence and distinctive scent throughout the summer months. February is not a natural time to have them in a vase in your house. But why would you think about the unnaturalness of a rose on Valentine's Day, when for most of us they have been readily available for the whole of our lives.
GLOBAL FLORICULTURE INDUSTRY
Floristry is so often associated with nature and things that are natural, but the truth is that the global floriculture industry as it currently operates could not be more unnatural. We are convinced that it doesn’t have to be this way.
The scenes of lorry loads of flowers going to waste during the early stages of the pandemic were shocking. In the first six weeks of lockdown the EU flower trade lost a billion euros of trade according to the international flower trade association Union Fleurs. Many businesses did not survive. Florists struggled to make ends meet during months of closures, and whole communities, reliant on employment on flower farms in countries where pay is low and workers are particularly vulnerable to a sudden loss of income, were on the brink of collapse as their connection to markets was lost practically overnight. The loss of sales was so serious in some countries that the Fairtrade Foundation described the situation in Kenya, which supplies one third of all roses sold in the EU, as a ‘humanitarian crisis’. We cannot allow the global south to bear the brunt of the whims and fancies of the global north, particularly when the effects of climate change added to by this very industry are going to be far more keenly felt in these locations.
Covid-19 truly exposed the fragility of the cut flower trade supply chain, and we are glad to know it has instigated governmental research into making the sector more resilient and discussions about local versus global supply chains. But this is a complex issue where the production process matters, so we need to keep asking the questions.
We’ve said it several times, but we will just say it again, we have no desire to shame any florists who are offering roses for Valentine’s Day. Far from it, using imported blooms at this time of year has become a necessity for so many florists in order to keep up with demand. And with supermarket ‘loss leaders’ pushing down retail prices (despite Brexit and Covid pushing up the wholesale prices) the product that the majority of flower fans have come to know and love, is now more ‘affordable’ than ever. This does not reflect the true economic or environmental or ethical cost of flowers in any way. All of this makes the business of working with flowers in the UK an incredibly high-risk and challenging industry to work in and we have respect for anyone trying to make it work.
That said, this is one of the single most influential events of the floristry calendar when consumer demand could make a huge difference. So with this campaign we want to raise awareness and to empower customers and florists to be able to make more informed choices. With knowledge comes power and using our purchasing power can have a real impact. From the reading we have done so far, we think that changing consumer expectations could take the pressure off flower farms in the global south, currently forced to hold back flowers and work inhumanely long hours to meet the Valentine’s Day demand and allow them to develop more sustainable working practices in safer working conditions.
We are determined to advocate for positive change within the global floriculture system. To boycott imported blooms could cause major socio-economic collapse in those countries affected, but that does not mean we have to accept the current status quo. This year we are committed to spending time researching and finding out how we can campaign for more holistic growing practices within the system.
A good place to start would be with better labelling, insisting on welfare standards and better regulation of working conditions and pesticide use. We think there is great potential for major behavioural change if there was better and specific product labelling, not only in terms of provenance, but vase life too so customers' expectations of flowers could be returned to something more natural.
So we encourage you to ask the questions, have a conversation with your florist about where their stock has come from and consider the conditions in which it has been grown. Support local, there’s likely to be a small-scale grower within easy distance if you live in the UK ( Flowers From The Farm have a great finder app on their website).