Nothing says Valentine’s Day more than a bouquet of red roses. But besides their sweet fragrance and vibrant colour, have you ever wondered where they come from?
Turns out, the cut floral industry is worth $100 billion globally.
The biggest exporter is the Netherlands, which accounts for 55 per cent of trade, followed by Colombia with 18 per cent, then Ecuador and Kenya with 15 per cent, according to Fairtrade Canada.
And the industry is mostly fuelled by Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and special events.
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“We are eight to 10 times busier during Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day than the rest of the year,” says Marcos Gutt, from Passion Growers, a sustainable U.S.-based rose provider.
Roses travel thousands of kilometres before they arrive at florists, grocery stores or 24-hour gas stations.
“Since our product is perishable we cannot store it, so we have to be able to process it in a very short time window and have the infrastructure to cool and ship it,” says Gutt.
In Canada and the U.S., flowers travel from South America by air, mostly arriving in Miami before the refrigerated commodities are distributed to wholesalers and stores, Gutt added.
But the growing, picking and transporting of roses and flowers alike, comes with a price, some critics say.
“All of us as consumers, we are rushing to get the right gift at Valentine’s, but we have to think about where the flowers were sourced from,” says John Marron, retailer and marketing manager at Fairtrade Canada.
“The conventional flower industry has a reputation for poor working conditions, lower pay, overcrowded housing. There are some serious issues around the exposure of workers to fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and various chemicals.”
A study by the International Labor Rights Fund found that 66 per cent of flower workers in Ecuador and Colombia, who are mostly female, had health problems including respiratory ailments, skin rashes and eye infections due to toxins.
Apart from the human cost, Marron says intensive farming of roses can also have an environmental impact.
A study from Britain’s Cranfield University looked into the carbon footprint of rose farms in the Netherlands and Kenya. By comparing the energy used in production, as well as delivery, they found that 12,000 Kenyan roses released 6,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide, while the Netherlands generated 35,000 kilograms for the same number of roses.
Looking at it in another sense, the production of all those Kenyan roses is the same as driving your car for almost 10 days non-stop. And for the flowers from the Netherlands, it’s the equivalent amount of energy used by an average house hold in two-and-half years.
Roses need a lot of water and land to grow, and since they are not edible, they are often exempt from regulations on pesticide, experts say.
“In Colombia, 200 kilos of pesticides are used per hectare, which is double what is used on the same surface in Holland, and about 75 times that of conventional agriculture in the developed nations,” the Committee for Human Rights in Latin America, a Quebec-based NGO, said in a statement.
However, there has been a growing green and sustainable movement in the floral industry, Marron explained.
“It’s really interesting; we are seeing this increase in demand from consumers to find out where the product is coming from. There is strong pressure from consumers saying ‘look, if I am going to spend my hard-earned dollars, I want to make sure I that I am buying a product that has been ethically sourced.'”
“We are also seeing retailers respond to that,” he added.
At the end of 2014, roughly 55 producers in eight countries held fair trade certification for flowers and plants, Marron said. And sales of fair trade flowers have gone up, he added.
He recommends buying roses that have the Fairtrade mark on it, which means products have been certified to offer a better deal to farmers and workers involved.