His Organic Flowers Help mothers Around the World
May 08, 2011 | By Kate Santich, Orlando Sentinel
To the flower industry, Robert McLaughlin will tell you, no other holiday is as big as Mother’s Day. Sure, Valentine’s Day dominates rose sales, but when it comes to your Gerbera daisies, your Peruvian lilies, your assorted tulips and sunflowers and irises, moms rule.
Which means McLaughlin — CEO of the Maitland-based Organic Bouquet, one of the largest organic online florists — has been an especially busy man these past few weeks.
But it’s not just checking on growers in Apopka and California and Ecuador, or filming a segment for Better Homes & Gardens TV, or even doing interviews on ABC News about his floral recommendations for the royal wedding that has kept him running.
Because McLaughlin isn’t just trying to promote flower sales that will make mothers happy for a day. He’s trying to change mothers’ lives.
Women dominate the work force of Organic Bouquet’s growers. All but the smallest family-owned farms have on-site medical facilities, child care, health education and above-minimum-wage pay. In some places, the company has plowed 12 percent of revenue back into funds managed by the workers, who can collectively decide to use it however they want.
Outside Bogotá, Colombia, the company provided a no-interest loan to convert a former horse farm into an eco-friendly grower of flowers and greens — the first organic-greens grower in that nation. Now Organic Bouquet takes 10 percent of the proceeds from sales of those products and gives them to a small foundation started by the grower for local children with autism.
And in Ecuador, Organic Bouquet is helping small landowners break into the eco-friendly floral business by creating family-owned farms. Initially, Organic Bouquet offered seeds — then bought the first crop of sunflowers those seeds produced. With the profits, the families are now growing a second crop. And using a no-interest loan from the company, they will attend finance classes and become certified in sustainable-growing practices.
All of Organic Bouquet’s flower-farming partners have been certified “sustainable” by third-party agencies — meaning the company must pay living wages, guard workers’ health, build soil quality and conserve water. The most common certification comes from Veriflora, a global program whose mark of approval is considered the industry’s gold standard.
“Everybody is looking for today’s buck, not tomorrow’s,” McLaughlin, 41, said of his floral-industry competition. “But these community projects — that’s what I get excited about.”
His “mission-based” company — one that emphasizes social responsibility as much as profits — is now bringing in about $10 million a year. Though it’s still dwarfed by the likes of 1-800-Flowers, Organic Bouquet has carved out a growing niche of health- and eco-conscious consumers willing to spend $5 to $10 more for a product they feel good about.
“I can’t help but have respect for anybody who is trying to change the floral industry,” said Marty Mesh, executive director of Florida Organic Growers, a nonprofit. “It has been very slow to go organic. In South America, there are communities where the people can’t even drink the water anymore because of the floral industry’s runoff.”
Organic Bouquet is working on the pace of change and awareness. In its “Flowers for Good” program, it has partnered with 55 nonprofits throughout the world to sell specific bouquets that bring a percentage of proceeds back to the charity. Among them: The Nature Conservancy, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Physicians for Peace.
“It was this dark-purple bunch of roses, and they were sort of big and fluffy and just beautiful,” she said. They even came in a brown paper wrapping and then in a cardboard box. So for me, as the director of an eco-nonprofit, I was just so thrilled.”
“It’s a great idea,” said Susan Leopold, executive director of United Plant Savers, one of the 55 nonprofit partners. This past winter, when she finished her doctorate in environmental studies, friends surprised her with an Organic Bouquet delivery.
A world view
Few visions excite McLaughlin more than the one he has for his hometown of Apopka, where nurseries and fields have been doused for years by some of the nastiest chemicals in agribusiness.
This is where McLaughlin came of age in the flower industry. At 14, he started working after school and on weekends for the nurseries that supplied his stepfather’s Sandlake Flower Co.
McLaughlin’s mentor was a man in his 60s who taught him — outside the greenhouse — how to get rid of aphids using dish soap and how to kill weeds with salt water.
But when it came to the greenhouse, the common practice required a highly regimented chemical spray. Workers would take off their shoes and shirts to avoid getting them wet, leaving their bodies exposed to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
“My mentor — he spent years being exposed,” McLaughlin said. “We all were, but not for as long. If you looked at his face, he constantly had lesions and drooping skin that looked like it was about to fall off.”
A few years later, his mentor was dead, riddled with cancer. Though it is impossible to prove, McLaughlin has no doubt that the greenhouse chemicals were the culprit.
Cindy Johnson, now 59, worked as a company driver at that time and remembers the impact on McLaughlin.
“I think he learned the lessons the hard way: by seeing what the chemicals did to people,” she said. “Deep down, it helped him realize there has got to be a better way.”
McLaughlin soon worked his way up to management, eventually running the Winn-Dixie floral program for all of Metro Orlando. Ultimately, the industry took him in the mid-1990s to Ecuador, where he witnessed the unfettered growth of the rose business. The country’s equatorial high-altitude location makes it uniquely suited to growing the more exquisite blooms, a fact not lost on hordes of foreign investors who set out to make a quick buck. Many succeeded, but some blossomed only to bust.
“When that farm goes out of business, everybody in town is out of work, and it’s devastating,” McLaughlin said of the impact he witnessed. “People are forced to either move to the capital, where there is a lot of crime and few jobs, move to another area, turn to crime themselves or grow illegal narcotics. There are no good choices.”
By the time Organic Bouquet hired McLaughlin as its CEO in 2007, the company and the industry were both in trouble. South American growers in general had earned a horrendous reputation for pollution and exploitation of workers, and Organic Bouquet was hemorrhaging money.
McLaughlin soon closed its expensive San Francisco-based headquarters, consolidated operations across the country and set up shop in a Maitland business park, where he can watch ducks swimming around a pond just outside his office window.
The scene, like virtually everything about the company these days, is a reminder of its commitment to Mother Earth and her people. There is the recycled-cardboard furniture, the recycled packaging for the flowers, the carbon-offset program for deliveries, the venture into sales of such gifts as organic honey and recycled-metal jewelry, and the birth of a pilot floral farm in battered Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
And someday soon, with an eager grower, McLaughlin hopes to begin transforming the first of 400 greenhouses in the indoor-foliage capital of the world, Apopka.
“It starts with awareness,” he said. “And it’ll take money — I’ll have to get an investor — and I’ll need to find a progressive-thinking grower that wants to make a change. … But right now, I wouldn’t send my 16-year-old son out there to work in the kind of greenhouses I used to work in. And if I won’t send my son, why should I send someone else’s son or daughter?”