Where do your flowers come from?

Posted:: March 3, 2016

Explore the choices we have when buying flowers. Where do they come from, and what does that mean for environmental and social issues?

As many people in the US know, most of the flowers sold in the US today are grown internationally. What does that mean? Let’s start at the beginning.

We’ll start in the late 70’s. At this point, there was a surging drug problem in the United States. What does this have to do with flowers? Quite a lot, actually. In the early 80’s the US government started an initiative to curb the amount of cocaine coming into the country. Of course, like most new ideas, it wasn’t perfect right out of the box. Shortly after the US started to buy flowers from South American countries like Columbia, border agents had to start being much more vigilant. Many boxes of carnations and roses coming from South America would come with a surprise package of cocaine packed with them. Border agents would take long metal rods and stab the boxes to see if any cocaine would be sifted out through the process. This caused an upset with many florists who received broken and damaged flowers.

Before the international cut flower trade became a thriving business, the US had many small farms growing flowers year round. This, however, was not sustainable because of the cost of land and the high cost of fuel to keep greenhouses heated in an environment that was not ideal for growing cut flowers. Most of the flowers grown domestically are now grown in California. There are still some small farms growing seasonally, but they are fewer and the quantities they grow are not enough to sustain local florists.

The cut flower industry in California started to climb exponentially in the 90’s. The economy was good and demand for domestic products was growing. California provides about a tenth of the flowers purchased in the United States today. That figure is approximate, and it really depends on the source you’re looking at. Some of this is because the rate of purchase depends on the proximity to California.

Meanwhile, in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the cut flower industry was making some changes in its South American partnerships. The demand for fair trade products and sustainably grown products was rising. A new company called Floreverde  was formed in 1996. It began to help farms that were already trying to give workers better conditions and more say in how the farms were run. They also helped to find better ways to grow flowers using fewer pesticides and chemicals. These days we have the choice to buy more consciously; from farms that are doing the right things to reduce their impact on the environment.

We have to remember that there are ups and downs to every  big decision. California cut flowers are domestically grown and support US jobs, but are grown in an environment that is often dry while they are using much of the available water supply. California is also home to many mud slides and floods. Growing flowers there year round takes a lot of effort. It’s carbon footprint is actually quite high. Like buying foreign wine on the East Coast, buying foreign grown flowers can have a lower carbon footprint than buying from the other side of the country.

When buying from South American growers, we are supporting jobs in a third world country. Their standards for pesticide use are not quite as high, but many growers are growing to their flowers using little to no pesticides now to conform with the standards the rest of the world has set for them. Their workers are also being treated fairly, often given meals during work and being given a share of the flower sales. Here more about this in the video in this blog post.

We each need to make up our minds about what is most important to us when it comes to environmental and social issues. This is just the tip of the ice berg. With flowers being grown on every corner of the globe in Thailand, South America, South Africa, Alaska, California, Australia, New Zealand, Holland and more… there is more to talk about than what we can fit in a somewhat long blog post. Being aware is important. We are all more concerned about the story and origins of the products we consume than we used to be. We want you to know that we are concerned too, and make our buying decisions carefully.