Buying flowers for holidays like Valentine’s Day is practically expected in many communities. If you so much as look for flowers online, you’re inundated with flowers for dates, birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s Day, congratulations, and more!
It’s lovely to receive flowers for any occasion, but is it sustainable?
Cut flowers are sadly bad for the environment – most are cultivated in bulk using massive amounts of chemicals. Pesticides, fungicides, and preservatives all add up and can affect anyone from the growers to the florists themselves.
There are some ways to cut down the environmental impact of your flowers though: go local or buy potted plants instead!
Are cut flowers bad for the environment?
Cut flowers can come in two varieties – they can either be harvested by the gardener or florist company themselves or be imported from other countries.
It’s hard to tell whether a flower advertised as ‘fresh-cut’ is truly fresh. Additives can be added to prolong shelf-life as well, giving sellers more time to sell their flower stock.
Most countries have a floral industry that relies on mass-produced flowers grown in fields or glasshouses. The floral industry is particularly linked to the bridal and funeral industries, but cut flowers are also used for decoration or gifts.
A survey in Belgium found that “107 active substances were detected from all samples; i.e., an average of about 10 active substances per bouquet”. The substances included toxic chemicals that affect the nervous system of the florists handling the flowers.
Other liquid and gas chemicals used to cultivate flowers are linked to causing cancer. The National Wildlife Federation warned of their use in 2000, as safety guidelines were severely lacking to protect florists, growers, and consumers alike. Even workers not directly involved in applying pesticides were at risk from carcinogenic chemicals.
Transport costs of importing flowers are important to consider when buying cut flowers. Most imported flowers are produced in the Netherlands, Kenya, Colombia, and Israel, as the most popular flowers (like roses, orchids, and carnations) are grown there.
A lot of energy goes into cultivating flowers, especially those in the north like the UK and Netherlands. Cloud cover makes it necessary to use greenhouses, which require a lot of electricity in order to heat and light the area. While greenhouses are efficient economically, they’re also very resource-intensive.
Greenhouses in the north use more energy to provide heat and light than those in hotter, sunnier countries. This results in “a significantly higher rate of CO2 emissions” compared to southern greenhouses or field crops. In the Netherlands, it’s estimated that 79% of energy used across the agriculture industry is used to power greenhouses alone.
Small businesses are more likely to grow their own flowers to cut, source them from local gardeners, or harvest from the wild. This is more eco-friendly, but might not be as sustainable.
To be sustainable in selling cut flowers, a florist needs to know exactly where their flowers are sourced from and what is used to grow them.
Harvesting flowers from the wild removes necessary pollen and nectar from local pollinators and other parts of the ecosystem. Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and preservatives are harmful for the plants, soil, and decomposition.
Is it bad to buy cut flowers?
It isn’t bad to buy cut flowers, but it is best to sustainably source your flowers.
Locally-grown, native flowers are sustainable because they are more likely to be grown by gardeners in gardens instead of greenhouses. This means fewer chemicals will be involved in their cultivation and they need to be transported over shorter distances.
Most cut flowers last a few days after being cut with proper care. This is because flowers continue to grow slowly even after being cut, but they aren’t able to get vital nutrients that allow them to survive.
Non-native or high-maintenance flowers will rarely live past the day.
How to help cut flowers last longer
To allow your flowers to last as long as possible without chemical intervention, keep them standing in water in shade. Flower food can preserve them for longer, but even so-called ‘natural’ flower food uses bleach.
Trimming the end of the flower stems can help them last longer as well. It enables the flowers to take up water without being slowed down or stopped by wilting ends.
Filtered water is better for keeping cut flowers alive than using tap water due to the presence of chlorine and fluoride.
The most natural form of flower food to help flowers remain alive includes water, fresh lemon or lime juice, and sugar. Most recipes for this natural flower food advise the use of bleach to reduce bacteria and mold, but you may be able to substitute it with baking soda or vinegar.
One flower food alternative uses sugar and white vinegar, and another suggests apple cider vinegar with sugar. Add two tablespoons of sugar and two tablespoons of white vinegar per liter of warm water. Always make sure you’re putting in enough water, and swap it out every two days.
Cutting the stems at an angle before placing the flowers in water will help them take in the water too.
Are Valentine’s flowers bad for the environment?
80% of roses sold in the US are grown in South American countries and imported for sale. Around 100 million roses are sold each Valentine’s Day, resulting in roughly 9000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
Picking flowers on Valentine’s Day is more difficult if you take the time to really look for sustainable options.
Flowers certified by Florverde have been grown with limited environmental impact, as the Florverde standards include working conditions, environmental best practices, protection of biodiversity, and more.
If you see Florverde’s logo, you can be sure that the flowers have been produced in the best way possible.
But does that mean buying flowers for Valentine’s Day is bad for the environment?
It’s a difficult question because flowers are so connected to celebrating Valentine’s. The mass production of flowers for Valentine’s Day means that many workers could be mistreated, the flowers might be loaded with preservatives, and the transportation costs may soar compared to other, year-round cut flowers.
It’s better to buy potted plants or swap out the flowers for some eco-friendly chocolates! The potted plants will last longer and the chocolates are the perfect swap for celebrating the day.
Are fake flowers more eco-friendly?
Fake flowers, such as those made from plastic or silk, are only more eco-friendly if you intend to use them for decades. Processing synthetic materials such as plastic, polyester, and latex are all environmentally unfriendly, resulting in pollution, waste, and high energy use.
Silk flowers are the least environmentally damaging flowers as the silk used is usually natural and spun by silkworms, but it’s important to be sure what else is used in them.
You could even try creating your own fake flowers using fabrics and some arts and crafts skills!
Is buying flowers eco-friendly and sustainable?
There are so many factors to consider when buying cut flowers. While there are ways to tell how eco-friendly your florist of choice is, it doesn’t guarantee that every step from seed to bouquet has been made with sustainability in mind.
The chemicals used in cultivating and preserving flowers are a good enough reason to drop cut flowers entirely. But when you think about it, how much use is the recipient really getting out of those flowers?
It’s nice to have flowers but the same feeling can come from a box of chocolates or a gift card – and both of those have a bit more use and need less support!
You don’t have to cut out buying flowers entirely. Instead, you can look at flowers grown locally in your area or find florists who sell what they source or grow themselves.
Look out for the following certifications on imported flowers:
- Florverde Sustainable Flowers
- Flor Ecuador
- Rainforest Alliance cut flowers
- MPS flowers
- Fairtrade flowers
If they aren’t certified, avoid them!
According to Which?, the most eco-friendly flowers in the UK are lilies, snapdragons, and alstroemerias produced in the UK because they have the lowest carbon emissions from cultivating and transporting them.
While data isn’t available for most countries, a good rule of thumb is to buy flowers native to your state or country.