Photo by <a href="">Thomas Hawk</a> (<a href="">CC</a>).
Photo by Thomas Hawk (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: Flowers for Sale

Feb 14, 2008

Valentine's Day is here with storefronts festooned pink and red. Why not run out and buy a friend, a spouse, or a lover some organic or imported roses?

If My Fair Lady were set in today's London, Eliza Doolittle's roses would likely come from Colombia or Kenya. The traditional flower market is a thing of the past. Flowers are now imported from all over the world, creating trade-offs for the ethical consumer.

UK International Development Secretary Hilary Benn argued last year that the emissions produced by flowers grown in Kenya for sale in the United Kingdom can be less than a fifth of those produced by growing flowers in heated greenhouses in Holland, as reported by the BBC. The imported flower market offers British citizens a simple way to reduce carbon emissions while supporting developing countries, he contends.

But flowers imported from Kenya may have a hidden human cost. Though potentially less taxing on the environment, there are allegations of human rights problems in the industry. The nongovernmental organization War on Want argues that Kenyan flower employees face poverty-level wages and unhealthy working conditions. Their report "Growing Pains" states that workers, mostly single mothers, "toil long hours for little more than £5 [about USD10] a week—well under half a living wage—and cannot meet costs for food, housing, transport, education and health."

Many of the poor working conditions in Kenya can also be found in Latin America. Young labor activist Alexandra Early learned on a trip to Colombia that workers young and old complain about "the lack of protective equipment and clothing, which leaves them exposed to pesticides in the fields and to the fungicides that flowers are dipped in prior to shipment." The workers report headaches, asthma, nausea, and impaired vision from such exposure. According to "Growing Pains," pregnant workers exposed to the mix of chemicals also face the risk of miscarriages, premature births, and birth defects.

Flower-growing in Colombia, America's main source for flowers, was initially promoted as a way to encourage farmers to switch over from coca cultivation, and the industry has benefited from tariff protection. Colombia faces continued allegations that it is unfairly subsidizing its flower production. Representative Sam Farr (D-CA) has spoken out against the increased subsidies, calling them "a slap in the face to our growers, not to mention illegal under WTO trade rules," according to the Human Flower Project.

The industry is also influenced by multinational corporations like Dole, which is now one of the largest flower producers in Colombia. In 2006, Dole closed the Splendor flower company where independent union Sintrasplendor had sprung up, drawing accusations of union busting.

How does one buy flowers this Valentine's Day without feeling guilty about hurting the environment or laborers?

One solution is to buy flowers with the VeriFlora label or Fair Trade Certification. The VeriFlora Certified Sustainably Grown label guarantees "that flowers and potted plants have been produced in an environmentally and socially responsible manner." Nearly 25 producers have been certified throughout the United States and Latin America, including four in Colombia. Fair Trade lists an additional nine, including one producer from Colombia and two from Kenya.

Every neighborhood needs a florist, but worker-friendly, organic, and certified sustainable flowers are also available on the Internet. Even if it's too late to place an order this holiday, there are 364 other days waiting to be brightened by nontoxic blossoms.

Further Reading: "No Lovers Got These Flowers," by Mohammed Omer, Inter Press Service, February 14, 2008. Floral agriculture in Gaza impeded by conflict, causing job loss.

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