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So why not buy roses in February? This is not a straightforward question and there is not a straightforward answer, but for us our findings so far have rather killed the romance of a dozen red roses for Valentine’s Day.

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. Our work is about enabling cross-disciplinary discussions around our connection to and expectations of seasonal produce. In the case of cut flowers, we often talk about the misconceptions that arise from greenwashing in the industry, 'seasonal’ being one of the most commonly used and thus one of the biggest problem words at present. There is nothing seasonal about a rose in February. A British grown rose is pruned in late winter, mulched in the spring (perhaps again in autumn) and we expect the first flush of flowers between late May and early June - if we’re lucky a second in August/September.

February is clearly no time for roses in bloom. Not here, nor is it in most parts of the world. This means that to meet demand - approximately 8 million or 570 tonnes of roses are imported into the UK for Valentine’s Day at last count - they have to be grown in artificially regulated conditions even in countries with equatorial climates. [1] Environmental inputs are high (water, energy and pesticide usage etc.), and so too are the ethical impacts. This intense period of high demand for just a single date, means roses have to be held back or brought on by force. Overtime is often compulsory, on top of often already long hours with poor pay and working conditions.

Ed Dingli

In the UK, 80% of cut flowers come via the Netherlands, 33.3% of the roses imported into the EU are grown in Kenya. [2] A dutch bouquet that includes 5 roses has a carbon footprint 32.252Kg/CO2, a Kenyan bouquet that included 5 roses, equals 31.132kg/CO2. An equivalent bouquet using British grown alternatives just 3.287Kg/CO2. A locally grown bouquet using 15 stems of outdoor grown flowers just 1.71kg/CO2. [3]

But buying unseasonal flowers is not just about carbon emissions and it would seem there must always be a trade-off of priorities: Roses grown in greenhouses in the Netherlands use more energy, but travel less and have more regulation on working conditions and pesticide use. Kenyan roses may have natural heat and light, but use more chemicals and air miles, not to mention water in a location already suffering from water scarcity, ecological degradation and social issues including health and safety standards, gender discrimination, precarious employment and land rights. [4]

Laura Diggens

As flowers are not consumables, regulations on pesticide use are also much less stringent. A 2018 study conducted on florists’ exposure to pesticides found over 100 different variants on the cut flowers being handled, with the vast majority of these also transferring to the florist’s skin, and 70 of these also identified in urine samples. We dread to think what this means for the handlers earlier along the chain.) [5] We also recently learned that the UK produces pesticides for an international market that are banned for use domestically. [6]

Increasingly, we can’t help but feel that this is an issue of social justice. Flowers are a luxury, a luxury that is only able to be enjoyed by a small percentage of the world, and that luxury should not be costing other humans and the places where they live to the extent that they do.

Take Kenya for example: Cut flowers are now Kenya’s second largest export, contributing around 1% of the country’s GDP. They are also one of the country’s largest sources of employment generating income for around 4% of the population, with over 100,000 people working directly in the flower industry and an estimated two million indirectly [7]. Boycotting these blooms would have a devastating economic impact, there is no doubt and we do not have a national supply of cut flowers as it stands that could meet current demand - nor should this be a goal, seeing as the British growing season does not truly start until the Spring. BUT the ways in which the roses are currently grown, for the most part, comes at significant environmental and human cost. As we have said, reports of low pay, long hours, poor working conditions and other systemic abuses of workers rights are widespread particularly for women who make up the majority of the workforce. [8] Only 30% of flower farms are signed up to Fairtrade schemes, meaning the rest are left less accountable. That is on top of the high water usage in a country affected by drought and the effects of pesticide run off having a documented effect on biodiversity around Lake Naivasha. [9]

Being ‘sustainable’ has to be trifold for people, planet and profit and as we see it maintaining current common standards of practice by endorsing unseasonal consumer demands in the global north is not only unsustainable, it is immoral. We are determined to advocate for positive and progressive change within the global floriculture system, we want to be part of a system that shares the benefits more equally with everyone involved.

Emily Ann Harris

Particularly as there is also a huge problem of value distortion as a direct result of supermarkets - the UK's largest outlet for cut flowers as opposed to specialist flower shops in the EU - often selling roses as loss-leaders which doesn’t remotely reflect their true cost (economical, ethical or environmental). So, to make matters even more confusing despite increasing growing and transporting costs - the product that flower fans have come to know and love, is now more affordable than ever. At the other end of the scale, independent florists are having to spend more on rose wholesale costs - without being able to up their retail prices in a bid not to lose customers in such a highly competitive environment. This leaves both florist and grower at either end of the supply chain at an even lesser advantage.

We need to find robust social and environmental solutions to make sure the industry is as beautiful as the flowers it trades upon. 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. Whilst 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 should be just as loving to our planet and the people on it as they are to the recipient.

Hazel Bryer

We have been brought up as consumers in a world where questioning provenance or credibility is often viewed as uncomfortable or even unreasonable. We want to empower the public to be able to ask questions with confidence. As Ros Davidson said in her report ‘The Environmental Impact of Cut Flowers? Not so Rosy.’: ‘No single buyer can reverse the impacts of the flower industry, but consumers can communicate to producers and suppliers that there’s greater demand for ethically produced, sustainable flowers.’ [10]

Valentine’s Day 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, and ask more questions. With knowledge comes power and using our purchasing power can have a real impact.



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