September / October 2005
By Ross Wehner, Utne Magazine
Denver resident Jenny Ward buys organic when she's shopping for vegetables, body products, and cotton clothing. But what about flowers? "When I think about organic, I mostly think about the things that I am putting into my body," she says. "I haven't been educated to think about flowers." That's where Gerald Prolman comes in. The green entrepreneur is taking organics a step further with Organic Bouquet, the world's first online organic flower company, based in Novato, California. "Buying an organic flower means thinking about not only your own health but also that of workers and ecosystems around the globe," Prolman says. "It's evolutionary."
Studies show that flowers, one of the most pesticide-intensive crops in the world, cause health and environmental problems in Ecuador and Colombia, which produce more than two-thirds of all flowers sold in the United States. Evidence of pesticide poisoning among flower workers in Ecuador and Colombia surfaced in 2002 in Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal of the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. In Ecuador, nearly 60 percent of flower workers surveyed reported nervous system problems, including headaches, dizziness, hand trembling, and blurred vision.
Sales of organic flowers are growing with consumer awareness but still represent a fraction of the $19.5 billion U.S. floral industry. Americans bought $8 million worth of organic flowers in 2003, and the market is expected to grow 13 percent each year through 2008. Growth may be faster thanks to Veriflora, a sustainable-flower label that began popping up in select Whole Foods supermarkets this summer. "Green label" programs for flowers already exist in Europe, where consumers are more aware of flower problems, and in South America and Africa. But Veriflora is the first that leads flower growers toward organic practices as the know-how and earth-friendly products become available. Veriflora also ensures immediate compliance with a range of sustainable principles, including fair treatment of workers, ecological responsibility, water conservation, and waste management. Workers in Veriflora-certified farms must receive overtime pay and health benefits and have the right to organize. Auditors arrive unannounced to test everything from compost to the streams running off the farms.
Veriflora was masterminded by Prolman and is being supported by Whole Foods and some of the largest names in the floral business: Ball Horticultural, a global seed supplier; Sun Valley, one of the largest U.S. flower growers; Delaware Valley, the largest U.S. flower wholesaler; and Esmeralda, one of the top four flower growers in Latin America. Scientific Certification Systems, an organic certifier based in Emeryville, California, designed the program and is enforcing it. SCS chief executive Stan Rhodes sees Veriflora as the next step beyond the U.S. Department of Agriculture's national organic standards, which took effect in October 2002. "Organic never promised you fair labor standards, nor did they address the issue of ecological protection," he says. "Veriflora combines organic with sustainable farming."
Rhodes hopes to spread Veriflora to other pesticide-intensive crops such as bananas, coffee, pineapples, and avocados. But the flower label is still struggling to win over the large supermarket chains, flower sellers like FTD, and the Society of American Florists, which represents 12,000 flower growers, importers, and retailers. "You are not eating flowers. It's not the same as food," argues SAF director Peter Moran. That's right, responds Prolman. "Organic flowers are not about us," he says. "They are about the health of workers and the planet itself."