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Why it could be better to buy flowers from Kenya this Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is a good excuse to buy your mum flowers to show your love and appreciation. But flowers, like anything else cultivated, can have harmful environmental and social impacts. Nigel’s Eco Store looks at greener ways to buy blooms.

Nearly 80% of the cut flowers we buy in the UK are imported from The Netherlands, Colombia and Kenya.

Twenty years ago half of flowers sold here were from the UK; now it’s just 10%. It’s big business – as a nation, we spend £2.2bn on cut flowers every year.

In Africa, flowers grow naturally because of the climate but in Holland they are grown in heated greenhouses, which need energy to maintain the temperature.

The environmental impacts of cut flowers:
Carbon emissions: In his comprehensive book, How Bad are Bananas?, Mike Berners-Lee calculates the amount of greenhouse gases (CO2e) released in the growing and transportation of a single red rose.

Surprisingly perhaps, this is 350g CO2e for a rose grown in Kenya and flown by air to the UK and 2.1kg CO2e for one grown in a heated greenhouse in The Netherlands.

The Kenyan rose is the better environmental option, but cut flowers are “one of the most carbon unfriendly ways of getting rid of your cash”, Berners-Lee concludes.

Who said romance was dead!

The best solution, though impractical and season dependent, is to grow a rose in your garden: as long as you only use organic fertiliser, no greenhouse gases are released.

Water use:
A single rose requires about 10 litres of water to grow in Kenya; the classic dozen roses, therefore, needs 120 litres. This in a country that the UN classifies as water-stressed ie it uses more than it naturally replenishes. Lake Naivasha, around which many of the Kenyan flower-growing operations are situated, has become polluted over the years, harming traditional fishing and animal husbandry practices, though there are ongoing initiatives to improve the situation.

Because we don’t eat flowers, there is not so much concern about what pesticides are used to help them grow. But that ignores the harmful effects on the surrounding environment, water sources and the workers themselves.

According to a Guardian report, 12 different pesticides are used in flower growing in Columbia, while in Ethiopia some producers use toxic pesticides banned in industrialised nations.

The social impacts of cut flowers:
Employment: You’d think the simple solution then would just be to buy homegrown flowers, but the cut flowers industry provides thousands of people with work and an income, often in economies where jobs are hard to come by. If you don’t buy imported cut flowers these workers might not be able to feed themselves or send their kids to school.

According to the Ethical Trading Initiative, the Kenyan cut flower industry provides income for up to two million people; Colombia (the largest flower exporter in the world after Holland) supports about 800,000 people.

That said, often labour conditions aren’t great. The ETI lists a range of problems including low wages, a lack of protection for workers from repetitive strain injuries and exposure to toxic pesticides.

Fifteen-hour shifts without a break are common around annual peaks in demand such as Valentine's Day and Mothers' Day. Many of the workers are female, and bullying, sexual harassment, inadequate maternity cover and allowances for childcare are major problems.

The ETI notes that conditions are slowly improving but it’s clear there is a lot more that needs to be done.

What you can do about it:
All these problems above apply in the most part to the other major flower exporters including Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Ethiopia, which means as a flower buyer you are faced with a dilemma.

Is it better to buy homegrown flowers with less environmental impacts and better workers rights, or buy imported flowers in the knowledge that you’re contributing to climate change and environmental damage but are supporting fragile local economies and the livelihoods of thousands of local people?

There isn’t a perfect course of action that has no negative impacts but here are some different ways you can buy flowers:

- If you buy imported flowers, buy Fairtrade ones. Studies have shown these have a lower carbon footprint and also offer better conditions to workers.

- Buy from, which is a network of farmers, smallholders and gardeners who sell locally grown cut flowers from the UK.

- Buy from an eco florist: they work with local growers and avoid floral foam – the spongy stuff used to stick flowers in, which is non-biodegradable and petroleum-based.

Try to buy seasonal flowers when you can. That does restrict you somewhat to spring and summer blooms but there are still some wonderful native varieties such as violets, asters, scabious, dahlias and sunflowers.

Buy a flowering plant instead. It will last a lot longer and should produce flowers over its lifetime.

Grow your own.

Ask your florist about Fairtrade flowers. If they don’t sell any, ask why not? Consumer pressure is powerful and if enough customers show interest in the environmental and social impacts of flowers, sellers will have to take notice.

As with many buying decisions these days, there’s an ethical/environmental labyrinth to negotiate.

There’s no simple answer, but buying flowers that minimise environmental damage and maximise social welfare have got to be better than ones that don’t.

The upside is mum is going to love her flowers a whole lot more when she knows that instead of buying them on the way home at the local garage as you usually do, this year you’ve put a lot of thought and effort into your final decision.

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