The thorny side of Valentine’s Day flowers

Valentine’s Day arrives with the expectation of receiving or gifting a beautiful bouquet for a loved one. Around 250 million stems of flowers are sold at Valentine’s globally, one-third being roses alone. However, meeting such high demand can come at the cost of sustainability.

Due to the nation’s climate, most roses sold in the UK during the first months of the year are imported. Most are from Kenya, where it is warm enough to grow naturally, or from the Netherlands, where they are grown under artificial heat and light. The high water usage and inefficient energy consumption, and pesticide runoff of these greenhouses result in high carbon emissions, contributing to the effects of global warming.

But buying flowers grown naturally in Kenya is also detrimental due to the carbon costs of transport. With 8 million stems being imported via Heathrow in February alone (3 times as many as any other month), this results in a huge carbon footprint of 30kg of CO2 emissions for a mixed bouquet of 11 Kenyan and Dutch stems. Because roses are not seasonal in the UK until late May, such high emissions from the importing of roses are unavoidable.

A study by Rebecca Swinn exploring the sustainability of cut flowers sourced from different countries found that Dutch and Kenyan roses were amongst the flowers with the highest emissions, consisting of over 2.4kg of CO2 emissions per stem. To put this into context, flying from Paris to London in economy class is worth 58kg of CO2 per passenger.

But the detrimental impact these flowers have does not stop just at carbon emissions. To meet the unrealistic customer demand for them to be long-lasting, imported flowers are covered in chemicals which are harmful to both people and the environment. Roses were found to be the most contaminated cut flowers with an average of 14 substances detected per bouquet. Since flowers are not consumables, the regulations on pesticide use on them are laxer. Florists are advised to wear gloves to protect themselves although handlers earlier along the chain may not have such a luxury.

So how to avoid such unsustainable practices while still being able to enjoy some beautiful flowers on Valentine’s Day?

The general advice is to buy locally from ethical producers who sell seasonal flowers. This is the main idea behind the “grown not flown” movement in which different organisations centre themselves around. The nationwide organisation Flowers from the Farm, for example, encourages people to grow cut flowers for market in the UK and promote seasonal flowers from local producers.

Swinn’s study supports the benefits of buying local flowers, finding that a locally grown bouquet of mixed garden flowers is estimated to have CO2 emissions of only 5% of the Dutch or Kenyan bouquet.

When buying locally, look for recyclable packaging instead of single-use plastic, which supermarket flowers are so often wrapped in, since plastic does not break down in landfills.

Improving your sustainability practices extends beyond just buying the flowers: it is important to dispose of them in a sustainable way. Flowers should be thrown away in compost or garden waste bins instead of a normal bin in which they would just be sent to a landfill.

Some may be wary about foregoing the traditional dozen roses in favour of a more sustainable bouquet since partners usually expect roses. However, gifting a unique bouquet of locally grown flowers is perhaps the most special thing you could do for your partner since it shows you have put thought into their gift instead of doing the same as everybody else.

Valentine’s Day as a holiday is already fuelled by consumerism and unsustainable practices, so whether you are single or in a relationship, doing something as little as buying locally sourced flowers can go a long way for your environmental impact.


Featured image: Teona Swift via Pexels

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