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:
When a rose has reached maturity at the farm, it is hand-cut by a worker and immersed in a citric acid solution to prevent bacteria blockage and to keep the flower hydrated without water. While the flower is still wet, it is packaged into boxes with other roses and transported to a post-harvest facility where it is processed by workers for presentation and travel. The rose is then bundled together with others in plastic sheets and hydrated for 6-24 hours in a formula to kill developing bacteria during their long travel. They are then placed in cold rooms where they are cooled to just above freezing, packaged into boxes, loaded onto refrigerated trucks, and transported to cold rooms at airports. Some flowers are packed onto planes at international airports. When the rose arrives in the country, it is brought into a refrigerated receiving terminal that may hold as many as 14,200 boxes of flowers at once (Growers Direct, n.d.). The boxes are x-rayed and randomly inspected for insects and fungi that are prohibited, but the toxic chemicals used during processing and boxing making it impossible for living creatures to survive on the flower before being packaged (Kosinski, 2020). The rose then travels by refrigerated truck again to reach the wholesaler, where it is refrigerated until sold to florists and shops. Florists then put the rose through a rehydrating process, where they are cut and dipped into chemicals and left to absorb the water overnight before they can be processed for bouquets or designs. This is starling when compared to sourcing only during the rose season in Canada, where farmers offer delivery or pickup of their roses grown less than 125 Km away and do not need to be treated with chemicals to withstand travel. Roses are even more special when you wait for their season and know the hands behind who grew them.
Unsafe and Unfair Working Conditions
A lone red gerbera flower. Image from Adobe Stock Photos.
We have already touched on the concerning working conditions of florists working with imported flowers, but what about the farmers and workers overseas who grow and treat these flowers? Nearly two-thirds of Colombia flower workers suffer from one or more forticulture-related health issues including headaches, nausea, impaired vision, conjunctivitis, rashes, asthma, congenital malformations, and respiratory and neurological problems (ILRF, 2009). Health risks are not just from working with the flowers. 60% of workers in Columbia and Ecuador are women, where they face sexual harassment and violence at alarming rates (ILRF, 2009). A study in Ecuador found that 55% of women flower workers had experienced sexual violence, and 19% of women flower workers had been forced to have sex with a coworker or superior (ILRF, 2009). Women must prioritize keeping their jobs to feed themselves and their families, as they live in climates where sexual and physical violence against women is culturally acceptable. This becomes even scarier when we consider how 20% of flower workers in Ecuador were children or young adults (ILRF, 2009).
Flower workers are often exploited to work 20-hour workdays and are paid poverty-level wages leading up to Valentine’s Day. Production quotas range from 250-300 stems per hour for harvesters and 1250-1500 stems per hour for workers in the classification and packing department (ILRF, 2009). In Colombia, flower workers earn an average of $7 (USD) a day, which less than we pay for a bouquet of flowers. Like many of our Canadian farms that exploit migrant workers (check out Migrant Workers Alliance for Change), farmers overseas are commonly employed through “labour cooperatives” or subcontractors, allowing them to get by with slave labour and denying them basic human rights (ILRF, 2009). A lot of florists and wholesalers are quick to believe labels on flowers promising to be fair-trade and sustainable erases the above issues and workers are now being treated fairly at farms overseas. These labels are given by nonprofits who require these farms to agree to a set of standards for their farm and workers, but actually governing to ensure workers are not continuing to be exploited is difficult when regulations do not exist. The pressure by farms to keep these labels and continue booming in the $34 billion global cut flower industry means employees are fired and blacklisted if they speak out about being treated in an unfair or unsafe manner.
Dead fish from a polluted lake. Image from Adobe Stock Photos.
As talked about previously, there are no regulations on what pesticides are used on imported flowers which poses a particular threat to the water systems in African and South American countries that are producing these flowers. Run-off chemicals from flower farms have contaminated lakes and collapsed fish populations (ILRF, 2009). This is even more problematic when you consider how water access is unfairly allocated to the large economic producers, meaning flower farms are often using up an extensive amount of water resources for these communities. Growing flowers in dry climates requires an ample amount of water, as flowers are 90% made up of water. As water access is turned away from locals that need it, flowers made up of 90% water fed from the local community is being exported from the country (ILRF, 2009). In addition to run-off pesticides polluting water, up to 90% of pesticides applied are evaporated from the soil, polluting the air for up to 1500 miles (ILRF, 2009). Supporting and purchasing flower imports is often justified as investing in farmers across seas, but little energy is applied to examining the impact on the local communities and the workers.
Flowers wrapped in plastic sleeves. Image from Adobe Stock Photos.
You have probably noticed how common it is to see flowers wrapped in plastic. What you often don’t see is the amount of plastic waste behind the scenes before florists even decide to rewrap in plastic sleeves. Unless buying directly from the farmer and requesting no plastic, most wholesalers and growers wrap in single-use plastic wraps as they claim it keeps the flowers safe in transport and leads to less damage. Florists are taught to slice the floral sleeves and cut the elastic bands to speed processing and reduce the likelihood of damaging flowers when unpacking. This means thousands of plastic sleeves and elastic bands are in the landfill each year due to a single florist or floral shop. When florists go out of their way to reuse plastic wrapping and elastic bands or use craft paper or burlap to wrap instead, they are making a small change to help reduce single-use plastic issues in floristry. Floral card picks are often used to display cards in bouquets, which can easily be ditched and the card secured using twine. Flower food is also packaged in single-use plastics and made up of unnecessary chemicals that can be avoided by trimming the stems of the flowers and providing fresh water daily.
The most wasteful floristry practice is the use of floral foam, a green foam made out of micro-plastics and chemicals that are used to keep flowers hydrated in floral design. This product, ‘bio-foam’ or not, breaks down into microplastics that are dangerous to our wildlife and waterways (Trestrail et al., 2020). Let alone the dangers to florists who work in unprotected and unventilated areas with foam daily, which contains hazardous chemicals such as formaldehyde smoke, phenol, cresols, xylenols, and sulfur dioxide which can irritate eyes, skin, and respiratory tract (Wolf, 2020). There are always alternatives to foam, but because they are more expensive and time-consuming, florists often hide foam in vase arrangements, wreaths, and many other designs. At the very least, you should never be using floral-foam or supporting a florist who does not value the dangers of this toxic plastic. Please read more about foam-free floristry here.
100% Local Flowers
Dried Flower Embroidery Hoop. Local flowers that have been naturally dried are arranged on tulle rescued from the landfill. Image from The Sustainable Florist.
All florists I see claiming 100% locally-grown flowers throughout the winter months are failing to mention that the foliage and dried flowers they are selling are all imported products. This means they have similar issues with toxicity, flower miles and waste, unfair working conditions, and water issues as mentioned above. As a florist that does not sell flowers in the winter months, it confused me for a long time how shops can sell ‘locally-grown’ year-round until I realized this was greenwashing. Don’t get me wrong, I fully agree with supporting our local greenhouse growers who provide us with special flower varieties in the winter months, but the demand for these flowers are high and their harvest unpredictable, making fully local product in the middle of our cold impossible. By greenwashing and failing to mention that the majority of the bouquet is still imported, the expectation that local flowers can be purchased throughout the winter months continues to build. Truthfully, unless you are just buying a bundle of flowers grown from a local greenhouse, sustainable fresh flowers in the winter is not a reality. Some even argue that the energy that large-scale local greenhouse producers use in the winter months is more harmful to our environment than flying flowers from across the country (however, considering all we talked about above, I would still rather this than all the potential issues that come with imported flowers) (Willow, 2019). A lot of our local florists need support right now through the pandemic, so you can still support them in other ways! Lots of florists sell potted plants, which have a much longer life than flowers and can be washed to remove chemicals. Florist shops also typically offer handmade gifts from small businesses, making it still possible to support your favourite florist this winter and Valentine’s Day while still saying no to unsustainable floral practices that are harmful to the health of humans, pollinators, and our planet.
How to make more sustainable choices this Valentine’s Day:
There are still a lot of ways to gift sustainably this Valentine’s Day while still supporting your local florist!
Find florists who specialize in seasonality, and use local materials that have been dried naturally in bouquets, wreaths, or other flower crafts in the winter months. Do not purchase botanicals or ‘everlasting’ bouquets that have been bleached or dyed and can no longer be composted.
Order a CSA or bouquet subscription directly from a flower farmer or florist who only sells fresh flowers during the local growing season.
Find a florist who uses greenhouse-grown local flowers and requests a bundle of only those locally-grown blooms. Make sure to tell the florist to skip the imported greenery and dried flowers.
Support your local florist or floral shop by gifting a potted plant. Although more expensive, many shops offer pots that were handmade by local artists rather than the imported pots that are not fair-trade.
Many local florists carry handmade gifts from other small businesses (like candles, books, accessories, or home decor) which means you can skip the flowers this Valentine’s Day and still support your favourite florist and local makers.
Let your family, friends, and loved ones know you care about the dangers of imported flowers so you can enjoy Valentine’s Day without worrying about the harms and dangers if you are gifted flowers.
Want to learn more about Sustainable Floristry?
Despite my name 'The Sustainable Florist', there are many florists around the world that have been paving the way for sustainability in floristry for many years. Make sure to follow along with the florists that have taught me everything I know about sustainability in the flower industry:
The Sustainable Floristry Network (@sustainablefloristry)
No Floral Foam (@nofloralfoam)
Slow Flower Society (@slowflowersociety)
Rita Feldman (@feldflowers)
Sarah Diligent (@floribundaroseflorists)
Debra Prinzing (@dkprinzing)
Becky Feasby (@prairiegirlflowers)
Linda D'arco (@littlefarmhouseflowers)
Nadine Brown (@wildflorastudio)
Briana Bosch (@blossomandbranchfarm)
Ellen Douglas (@b.o.t.a.n.y)
Cel Robertson (@forevergreenflowerco)
Fiona Pickles (@fionapicklesfloral)
Tobey Nelson (@tobeynelsonevents)
Susan McLeary (@passionflowersue)
...and many more!
Did we miss your favourite sustainable florist? Please comment their website or Instagram below!
Dundas, M., Lacharnay, J., Dekimpe, V., & IDE, M., (2019). Toxic cocktail: The secret within your flowers. Retrieved from https://www.france24.com/en/20190607-down-earth-pesticides-toxic-chemicals-slow-flowers-bouquets-agriculture-netherlands
D'Arco, L. (2019). Sprayed: The Cost of Altered Floral Materials Part 2. Retrieved from https://www.littlefarmhouseflowers.com/blog/2019/11/20/sprayed-the-cost-of-altered-floral-materials-part-2
D'Arco, L. (2018). Bleached: The Cost of Altered Floral Materials. Retrieved from https://www.littlefarmhouseflowers.com/blog/2018/12/5/bleached-the-cost-of-altered-floral-materials
Floral Daily (2018). Greenhouse NL: Prohibited crop protection products found on flowers. Retrieved from https://www.floraldaily.com/article/9014005/greenpeace-nl-prohibited-crop-protection-products-found-on-flowers/
Grower Direct (n.d.) A flowers journey, from farm to your home delivery. Retrieved from https://www.growerdirect.com/a-cut-flowers-journey
International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) (2009). Fairness in flowers: Campaign toolkit. Retrived from https://laborrights.org/sites/default/files/publications-and-resources/toolkit2009.pdf
Kosinski, J. (2020). How to Protect Yourself from Pesticide Exposure as a Florist. Retrieved from https://education.teamflower.org/learn/growing/ssl/what-you-can-do-to-protect-yourself-from-pesticides-in-the-floral-industry
Statistics Canada (2019). Canadian International Merchandise Trade Database. Retrieved from https://www5.statcan.gc.ca/cimt-cicm/topNCountries-pays?lang=eng&getSectionId()=0&dataTransformation=0&refYr=2019&refMonth=11&freq=12&countryId=0&getUsaState()=0&provId=1&retrieve=Retrieve&country=null&tradeType=3&topNDefault=10&monthStr=null&chapterId=6&arrayId=0§ionLabel&scaleValue=0&scaleQuantity=0&commodityId=060311
Taylor, D. A. (2006). Occupational Health: An Ugly Picture for Flower Workers and Their Children. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1551999/
Taylor, L., (2019). Celebrate February 14th as International Flower Workers' Day. Retrieved from https://www.solidaritycollective.org/post/celebrate-february-14th-as-international-flower-workers-day
Toumi, K., Joly, L., Vleminckx, C., & Schiffers, B. (2019). Biological monitoring of exposure to pesticide residues among Belgian florists. Human and Ecological Risk Assessment: An International Journal. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/333760805_Biological_monitoring_of_exposure_to_pesticide_residues_among_Belgian_florists
Toumi, K., Joly, L., Vleminckx, C., & Schiffers, B. (2017). Risk assessment of florists exposed to pesticide residues through handling of flowers and preparing bouquets. International journal of environmental research and public health, 14(5), 526. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5451977/
Toumi, K., Vleminckx, C., Van Loco, J., & Schiffers, B. (2016). Pesticide residues on three cut flower species and potential exposure of florists in Belgium. International journal of environmental research and public health, 13(10), 943. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5086682/
Trestrail, C., Walpitagama, M., Hedges, C., Truskewycz, A., Miranda, A., Wlodkowic, D., & Nugegoda, D. (2020). Foaming at the mouth: Ingestion of floral foam microplastics by aquatic animals. Science of The Total Environment, 705, 135826. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0048969719358218
Warrick, J., (2000). Pesticides and Cut Flowers. Retrieved from https://www.nwf.org/Magazines/National-Wildlife/2000/Pesticides-and-Cut-Flowers
Willow, B. F., (2019). What Is Ethical/Sustainable Floristry? Retrieved from https://ethicalunicorn.com/2019/02/19/what-is-ethical-sustainable-floristry/
Wolf, Y. R. (2020). The unknown danger of toxic floral foam (Oasis). Retrieved from https://medium.com/@riverwolfxo/the-unknown-danger-of-toxic-floral-foam-oasis-280a9e9fe667