• The Sustainable Florist

Thought of a Florist: Are Valentine's Day Flowers Worth all of This?

Updated: Feb 9

Flower petals arranged in a red heart. Image from Adobe Stock Photos.

I was recently asked by Earth Suds Co, which is a small Canadian business on a mission to replace single-use plastic bathroom products with eco-friendly alternatives, to share some tips about how to gift flowers sustainably this Valentine's Day.

At a time when many of us are separated from our friends, family, and loved ones, Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to show the ones we care about how much we miss them. It is also a time when fresh flowers are found everywhere - floral shops, grocery stores, convenience stores, cafes. With snow on the ground, you may have wondered where these flowers are coming from and how they get to your vase. It is important to talk about the environmental and safety costs of providing thousands of fresh flowers to Canadians in the middle of winter.

In 2019, Canada imported 14.8 million cut roses, amounting to $76 million in value. The majority of those imported roses are coming from Columbia and Ecuador (Statistics Canda, 2019). This is just considering roses, not the many other flowers that are imported into Canada throughout the year. One-third of all flowers exported from Ecuador are for Valentine’s Day consumption alone (International Labor Rights Forum or ILRF, 2009). Even during our growing season, thousands of flowers are imported into the country and chosen over locally-grown flowers from our Canadian farmers. There is a general lack of transparency within the floral industry, but particularly within the imported world of flowers where walls have deliberately been built to make it difficult to see how flowers are being grown and processed before they arrive in the country. February 14 is not only known as Valentine’s Day but also the International Day of Flower Workers, a day dedicated to raising awareness about the dire circumstances flower workers go through to provide red roses and other flowers on Valentine’s Day (Taylor, 2019).

Toxic Pesticides and Chemicals

A skull and red roses. Image from Adobe Stock Photos.

In 2018, Greenpeace put the spotlight on three bouquets for Valentine’s Day in the Netherlands with a focus on researching if prohibited crop production products, proven to be harmful to bees, were being used on cut flowers (Floral Daily, 2018). They found 43 different pesticides on those three bouquets alone, many of which are banned are proven to harm our pollinators (Dundas et al., 2019). If this isn’t shocking enough, in 2016 scientists in Belgian sampled three cut flower species (roses, gerberas, chrysanthemum) from florists around large cities in Belgium. They identified 107 substances, many of which had concerning toxic warnings that were not passed on to the florists who work with these flowers or the customers who brought the flowers into their homes (Toumi et al., 2016). Most of the active substances that were tested reached concentrations that are said to be 1000 times above what is allowed in food. Some examples of warnings from these substances are:

Fatal in contact with skin

Fatal if swallowed

Fatal if inhaled

Suspected of causing cancer

Suspected of causing genetic defects

Suspected of damaging fertility or the unborn child

May cause allergy or asthma symptoms or breathing difficulties

Causes severe skin burns and eye damage

Causes damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure

This paired with 96% of florists not wearing PPE or special clothing, 88% eating and drinking while they work, and 60% not receiving any information about pesticide residue is extremely worrying (Toumi et al., 2017). When compared to Belgians that do not work with flowers, florists were found to have significantly more pesticide residues in their urine (sometimes despite working with gloves and protection) (Toumi et al., 2019). This is not the type of industry I want to be working in. Most people who purchase these flowers and display them in their home will not have any immediate health effects, but children and people with chemical sensitivities could experience mild symptoms like dizziness and headaches from a bouquet alone, and the long-term impacts of enjoying chemical-ridden flowers in your home on a regular-basis are unknown (Warrick, 2000). Transparency about when pesticides and chemicals are being used on cut-flowers should be a requirement for the safety of our pollinators, planet, and people.

Dyed and Bleached Botanicals

Bright, unnatural coloured florals are so in right now in floristry. Red fern leaves, multi-colored baby’s breath, stark white pampas grass, and subtly dyed ranunculus and tulips are just a few examples of the altered botanicals being sold around the City of Toronto year-round. Most dyed and bleached botanicals are dried, which florists argue is eco-friendly since they are ‘everlasting’. The idea is keeping dried flowers in your home is more sustainable than buying fresh flowers, which are often high-waste to get to your home and only last a short period in a vase. However, these botanicals will likely not stay intact within your home forever, but they will leave an ‘everlasting’ impact on the Earth. Dried flowers are incredibly delicate, they can break apart with the slightest touch. What most people do not know, is that they have been sold chemically altered botanicals that can no longer be disposed of in the compost. Instead, they must be disposed of in the landfill, but many do not realize this as they were never notified they were not buying altered botanicals in the first place.

Bleached flowers and plants

A bouquet of bleached florals. Image from Shutterstock.

If you’ve purchased dried flowers from a florist before, chances are you have gotten stark white florals that have been gone through an extensive bleaching process. This process is done overseas, where the flowers are grown and dried. Due to the lack of transparency in the industry, wholesalers and florists do not need to label what chemicals are used to treat these botanicals, even though many are not even allowed to be used in Canada as they are deemed toxic or unsafe. Due to this, the process of bleaching botanicals is deliberately kept in the dark so consumers do not know the dangers to the earth and human health. After the botanicals go through a multi-chemical bleaching process (which typically includes chemicals such as hypochlorites, sodium chlorite, peroxide, hydrosulphites, and borohydride), they are then treated to control yellowing (barium hydroxide, calcium hydroxide, sodium bicarbonate, aluminum sulphate) (D'Arco, 2018). After that, they need to have the smell removed using chemicals such as sulfur dioxide, which is a gas created from burning coal, oil, or copper smelting (D'Arco, 2018). Lastly, the botanicals need to be strengthened again after being weakened from this chemical cocktail, so they are treated with calcium chloride, sodium chloride, glycerine, or water-soluble plastic adhesives before being shipped across the world (D'Arco, 2018). Is this really what eco-friendly floristry looks like?

Dyed flowers and plants

Rainbow dyed baby’s breath. Image from Shutterstock.

Dyed flowers are becoming increasingly hard to spot, with growers and wholesalers perfecting the process so flowers are so subtly dyed they can pass as natural. Dried flowers treated with dye are sold without any warning of alteration and many consumers believe they grow this way in nature. Eco-florists claiming to value natural floristry often sell dyed flowers without questioning the process behind them and their safety on the environment and those who grow, design, and purchase these flowers. The dye on these flowers is often transferred onto bare hands and drips down the arms of those who work with them. The water that these flowers sit in is discoloured and contaminated with dye, preventing any fresh flowers in these arrangements from absorbing freshwater, and thus significantly shortening their lifespan (let alone the thought of what happens to that contaminated water). Workers behind the dyeing and the florists working with these altered botanicals are often not provided PPE and work in unventilated areas which could be unsafe for our health. However, as wholesalers and growers do not need to honestly communicate what they use in these dyeing processes, we do not know what we are working with or the potential harms.

When we support our eco-friendly florists, we expect them to be using natural botanicals that can be composted with minimal impact on the environment, however, that is not the reality behind most green florists. In some cases, botanicals are spray-painted with plastic acrylic paint from a can. The plant material underneath this paint will break down eventually, but the plastic from the spray-paint will remain small particles of plastic, contaminating our water and wildlife (“sugar” based paints are the same, they just contain alcohol made from sugarcane) (D'Arco, 2019). In the best-case scenario, white flowers are being dyed by adding food colouring to the water of cut-flowers, but many do not opt for this option as it is less effective and the lack of regulations around transparency makes it easy to use stronger chemicals.

Flower Miles and Transportation

Flowers being prioritized for air transport mid-pandemic in May 2020. Image from Maxi Flora and Sustainable Floristry Network.

Have you ever heard of the Slow Flower Movem? These are movements that have been building in the US, Australia, the UK, and now all over the world to promote supporting local flower farmers rather than wastefully importing flowers grown in other countries, especially during the local flower season. With more starting to understand the waste of imported flowers, their long journey to get to your vase does not seem to be worth the few short days of beauty we enjoy from the flowers, especially when flowers can be grown in our backyards 5+ months of the year. To demonstrate the waste involved in this process, the following is the process a rose goes to ends up in your vase as described by Growers Direct: