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Beauty with a price – Thanksgiving flower arrangements may not be eco-friendly

By Rachael Monosson | 24 Nov 2011

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QUESTION: I love the bouquets that my husband buys for me from specialty shops in our city, but I’m wondering what the resource implications are for cut flowers bought at the store, and what are the most locally grown or sustainable options? Asked by Erika Check, ’99, San Francisco, Calif.

ANSWER:  Ah, yes, flowers. The western world buys them en masse twice a year, on Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. And today, on Thanksgiving, they comprise the centerpieces on holiday tables around the country. However, like so many things we purchase, flowers have hidden, not-so-beautiful costs.

Professional flower arrangements brighten Thanksgiving tables, but according to Stanford earth science students, they may not be the most eco-friendly floral options. (Photo: Kathryn Roethel/ Peninsula Press)

About 30 percent of the cut flowers we use in the United States come from the highlands of Colombia, and many more come from Ecuador. The flowers are grown in these warm, fertile areas, then are picked, refrigerated and shipped by air and truck to reach us. The energy cost alone is significant—flower shipping just for Valentine’s Day results in some 9,000 tons of CO2 emissions, an amount equal to the total annual carbon footprint of about 500 Americans.

Some experts have argued that it is better to buy flowers from tropical countries rather than temperate ones, since no heated greenhouses are needed in  a tropical winter. However, this only applies when flowers are bought out of season, and there are environmental costs other than CO2 emissions that must be taken into account.

Most flower growers use intensive farming techniques, which means irrigation, lots of fertilizer and heavy use of herbicides and pesticides to keep the plants and their blossoms looking perfect. The results include soil erosion, pesticide contamination and potential harm to farm workers (more on that in the Nitty-gritty). Water use particularly is an issue in warm but arid climates, such as Kenya, which supplies much of the European market. Flower farms around Lake Naivasha in Kenya are contributing to the lake’s surface dropping by 10 feet, depriving local people and wildlife of their water source.

So, what is a consumer to do? The most eco-friendly way to get flowers is probably to grow them yourself, organically. But there are ways to buy flowers with less impact on the environment.

The online florist Organic Bouquet sells and ships certified organic flowers from around the world. The blossoms will still travel a long distance to find you, and because its growers are certified by several different organizations, it can be tough to tell exactly how your order was grown. We’ll sift through the differences in the Nitty-gritty answer.

Apart from working through these organizations, there are other, smaller flower retailers that are certified organic, such as California Organic Flowers in Chico, Gardenia Organic in New York, and Terra Bella Flowers in Seattle. But your best bet might be to focus your flower shopping on local farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, which are increasingly adding fresh flowers to their mix of produce. You may not find all the diversity a globalized florist can provide, but your bouquet will be fresh, local and in-season, and probably much better for the environment, your local economy and the people who grow the flowers.

READ MORE: Are the pesticides used on imported flowers safe for your home? >>

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