Valentine’s day: buy me a flower or plant me a tree? 

Ngoc DINH

The beautiful bouquets we fall in love with every celebration, where do they come from? We explore the basics behind cut flowers in this article.

Questions 1: What is cut flower industry? 

Cut flowers are flowers and buds cut from their mother plants, commonly used for decoration. We see cut flowers across various types of important events, weddings, celebrations, funerals. A vase of fresh flowers is a common decor object in every household, a bouquet for your loved one on Valentines’ Day has been marketed to become a must. I can’t help myself admiring the beauty of flowers in the neighbourhood’s weekly Sunday market; many people can’t help themselves buying bouquets of flowers to embellish their balcony, tea room, dining table, etc. 

Cut flower buyers fuel a billion-dollar cut flower industry around the world. Data from UN Comtrade indicates that the cut flower industry amounts to $8.94 billion worth of world trade in 2019 (nearly equal to the GDP of New Caledonia in 2019). It accounts for 0.049% of total world trade (data counted for cut flowers and flower buds for bouquets, fresh and cut flowers, and flower buds for bouquets, dried). 

Top exporters and importers of cut flowers in 2019. Source: oec.world. 

The top exporter of cut flowers is the Netherlands accounting for 45.7% of the world trade value, followed by Colombia, Ecuador, Kenya and Ethiopia. The biggest importer is the United States and some European countries including Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K, etc.

Question 2: How does the cut flower industry work?

From farmers to customers, what does the process look like? The following infographic might give you a better idea of how the cut flowers are traditionally transported from farms to customers. 

The cold chain of the cut flower industry. Infographic by ND. 

The traditional process involves :

1) refrigerating harvested flowers

2) sending the flowers (through airfreight, sea) 

3) storing them in cold storage

4) transporting to (retail) flower shops by refrigerated truck

5) storing and selling them in shops

In other words, the flowers go through a cold chain, a sequence of refrigeration from farms, warehouses, to planes, trucks, etc, which is able to keep them fresh until delivered to the customers.

You can also refer to BBC’s detailed portrait of the cut flower industry, which involves the growth of the flowers, the supply chain until they reach their destinations and are ready to be sold to customers. The article emphasizes that time is absolutely essential: “for every extra day spent travelling flowers lose 15% of their value”. 

The cut flower industry involves a high carbon footprint transportation with the use of refrigeration throughout the process. 

“Keeping up with the world’s demand for flowers involves an intricate and delicately balanced supply chain of workers, farmers, wholesalers, airlines, cargo ships, traders, florists and supermarkets. Getting something as delicate as a bunch of flowers from one continent to another without them being crushed or wilting is a daunting technological feat.”

Back to the list of biggest cut flower exporters, we can see that apart from the Netherlands, the cut flower production is based in southern countries, which are described by BBC as “areas of high altitude with cool nights, which many flowers benefit from, proximity to the equator for maximum hours of sunlight, and cheaper labour. The change also meant an end to seasonal production and the beginning of a 365-day-a-year international competitive trade.” reported BBC.  

This leads us to the third question: 

Question 3: What exactly is the environmental impact of cut flower industry?  

If you look at how the cut flower industry is operated, you can probably anticipate massive environmental impacts. 

Overusage of water

The industry involves overusing and polluting water, which causes, for example, the drainage of water in Lake Naivasha, Kenya’s second-largest freshwater lake. Cut flower is the second-largest export of Kenya, and according to this study, 95 % of Kenya’s cut-flowers export comes from the area around Lake Naivasha thanks to its water resources. The settlement of many flower farms along the lake has caused half of the water drainage from the lake and the degradation of biodiversity in the area, namely the vanishing of hippos, birds and death of fish.

Overusage of pesticides 

Furthermore, according to this article, “flowers are the most pesticide intense crops”; they can carry up to 50 times the amount of pesticides used on food, which contaminated the environment and affected the health of people working directly in the industry. While we are usually alarmed with the amount of pesticides used for vegetables, that of flowers is often neglected (possibly because we don’t eat them). The heavy use of pesticides and fertilisers can pollute the groundwater and pose threat to insects. Pesticides: check.

The global trade of cut flowers often involves air freight. Photo source.

High carbon footprint mostly due to transportation & logistics

Just like every international traded product, cut flower’s environmental impact lies in its transportation. With the short longevity of flower freshness and the time pressure on delivering fresh, perfect-looking flowers, the supply chain often involves air transportation, which is among the most polluting and energy-costly means of transportation. To keep the flowers fresh is essential, thus, refrigeration is also involved. 

It is important to note that sometimes flowers grown within a shorter distance to the markets do not generate lower carbon emissions. Flowers grow where the natural condition is not suitable, for example, lack of warmth, needed to be supported with well-heated greenhouses. In short, carbon emissions: check.  

Question 4: Anything we can do to reduce the environmental impact of the cut flower industry? 

The core problem lies in the demand for diverse, foreign, exotic types of flowers in high frequency, regardless of time and seasons, which put further pressure onto the industry, indirectly induce the heavy use of pesticides and fertilisers to boost production. 

So the most natural solution would be to reduce the urge of buying exotic, foreign flowers. 

It is also recommended to buy flowers from local, small farms emissions. The locally-produced flowers in the UK seem to generate the lowest carbon footprint in comparison with flowers from Kenya and the Netherlands, according to this 2017 thesis by Rebecca Swinn from Lancaster University, UK. The carbon footprint of British flowers grown and sold locally in outdoor gardens is also lower than those grown on a commercial scale. 

This can be coupled with encouraging the cultivation of seasonal flowers in local, small farms. Micro-farming is also a practical option for flowers, especially as they are natural decorations to a house, garden, or balcony, etc. We discuss several types of micro-farming in our previous article.

For us consumers, what we can do is to buy flowers according to seasons, just like what we can do with our food. Flowers that grow in seasons are fresher, cost less energy and fertilisers to be grown. If you like, you can check the origin of the flowers to see if they come from local farms and fair trade and eco-friendly brands

In summary, if you would like to show love to your loved ones on Valentine’s Day, maybe buying flowers is not the most environmentally-friendly and thoughtful gift. 

Some practical recommendations can be: 

  • Understand and learn about the locally-grown flowers, you’ll be surprised to see that there are many locally-grown flowers you’ve never heard of, but do look wonderful
  • Buy locally-grown flowers
  • If you buy imported flowers, look for fair-trade certified products
  • Say no to packaging
  • And why not, try growing your own flowers if you live in the countryside and have a garden

Cover image: Photo by Julia Volk from Pexels

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