Walking into the stores this time of year, you can’t help but notice all the heart-shaped décor, cards, candy, and other gifts in shades of pink and red. Valentine’s Day is here, and it’s the holiday where we profess our affection for our significant others, family, and friends. Chocolates, teddy bears, and bouquets of roses are exchanged to show how much we care. Valentine’s Day sees the largest flower sales of the year (followed by Mother’s Day) as American shoppers are projected to spend over $2 billion on flowers for this heartfelt holiday alone. Of course, the majority of these flowers are roses. After all, a large bouquet of red roses is synonymous with romance, right? But, looking deeper, the story behind those roses you purchased for your loved one isn’t so rosy.
I was shocked to discover that over 80 percent of the flowers sold in the United States are imported, predominantly from Colombia and Ecuador (other countries that export large quantities of cut flowers are the Netherlands, Sri Lanka, and Kenya). But what are you buying into when you purchase that bouquet? Investigations into the cut flower industry have revealed real concerns about the immense human and environmental toll that these imported flowers are exacting.
In terms of human costs, labor abuses have been discovered on many of these farms. Low wages, poor working conditions, lack of worker health and safety precautions, and exposure to toxins in fertilizers, insecticides, and preservatives are prevalent in this industry. It is not uncommon for these workers to log 16–20-hour workdays in these conditions. In addition, workers often suffer from side effects of these toxic chemicals: rashes, impaired vision, headaches, infertility, and congenital disabilities. Unfortunately, medical coverage for these ailments is typically non-existent, and workers are reluctant to report them for fear of losing the jobs that feed their families.
Environmentally, imported flowers take a massive toll on our planet. The same toxic chemicals that harm workers also harm the ecosystems where they are grown. Chemical runoff from these toxins leaches into the water supply and the surrounding environment. These farms also tend to overuse water and energy resources. It requires a lot of water to grow all of those flowers, often at the expense of the local community’s water supply. But perhaps one of the most significant environmental impacts the imported flower industry exacts is through transportation. These stems are estimated to travel up to 6,000 miles to reach their destinations in the U.S. Achieving this while keeping the flowers as fresh as possible requires refrigerated airplanes and transport trucks, which release massive amounts of carbon dioxide emissions. In 2018, it was estimated that 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide were released during the transport of cut flowers from Colombia to the U.S. for Valentine’s Day alone. That is roughly the same emissions from 78,000 cars driven annually!
Another environmental hazard of importing flowers is the possibility of spreading invasive species. It’s hard to believe that insects would survive the chemical spray onslaught typical of imported flowers, but it can happen. Importing these non-native pest hitchhikers can be devastating to fragile ecosystems. Just look at the Emerald Ash Borer, Spotted Lanternfly, and Asian jumping worms as examples.
And if you need one more reason to question whether you should add that rose bouquet to your cart, consider this: most imported rose varieties are bred to withstand shipping. Period. Like much of the produce in the grocery store nowadays, the breeding has focused on long shelf-life rather than whether they taste or smell good. Often, the imported roses of today have little to no scent compared to the nostalgic garden roses we may remember from childhood.
So, with all of this doom and gloom associated with the flower industry, is there hope? The answer is yes! But it comes through the responsibility of the consumer. In response to concerns over the impacts of imported flowers, consumers, retailers, and flower growers in the United States created VeriFlora. This flower certification requires certified farms to provide environmental, social, and economic sustainability, product integrity, ecosystem protection, and fair labor practices within safe and healthy work environments. So, if you decide to buy flowers from a retailer, ask how far the flowers have traveled and whether they were ethically and sustainably produced.
Or, better yet, purchase local flowers! Find flower farmers near you whose growing practices align with your values. And, believe it or not, even in the coldest growing zones in the U.S., flower farmers are experimenting with growing tulips indoors in the winter. They offer gorgeous, sustainably grown tulips for sale just in time for Valentine’s Day. And even if your favorite flower farm doesn’t have fresh flowers in time for the holiday, they usually have gift certificates, CSA share sign-ups, and dried flower bouquets available. So, if you are planning on getting your loved one a bouquet for Valentine’s Day to show them how much you care, consider making the more environmentally friendly and ethical choice, all while supporting your local economy. That would really show how much you care.
Sources: Colombia’s Cut Flower Industry, Environmental Impact of Cut Flowers, Environmental Cost of Valentine’s Day Roses.
2 Replies to “Not So Rosy: The Real Cost of Imported Valentine’s Day Roses”
It’s going to be difficult to convince the consumer that enjoys on-demand blooms year-round to discontinue their habits… but each person becoming educated on this issue can make changes in their own behavior so as to not participate in this “profit-at-our-peril” business model. Bit by bit we can modify our shopping habits to reflect our inner values… the florists will joyfully welcome us back!
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Well said; I agree entirely! Educating the consumer regarding the value and benefits they are getting with local flowers is essential. This will be difficult due to lower price points on imported blooms and the convenience of on-demand flowers, as you mentioned. But there is hope that we are making progress!
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