A Budding Awareness of 'Green' Flowers
Picking roses that don't despoil the land
By Francesca Lyman
Charging past clattering trucks, in the loading bays of the warehouse, florist Melissa Feveyear strides into Seattle's wild and colorful wholesale Flower Market with a sense of purpose. Valentine's Day looms, so she's on the hunt for the freshest, most exciting roses. Her curly red head of hair leading the way, she edges past a cart of huge snapdragons, straight to the Rose Room, a big boxy refrigeration chamber where the season's most beautiful varieties -- Charlotte, Freedom, Forever Yours -- are tucked away.
Like other florists, she checks the best daily offerings. But she's on a special mission: Looking for varieties that have been labeled organic, sustainable, or that come from farms with such reputations. For a year she's filled that niche market, specializing in selling local or sustainably-cultivated fresh flowers arrangements. Before buying her boutique shop in Seattle, Terra Bella of Phinney Ridge Florists, she sold such flowers on the street, out of an Airstream trailer.
It's not an easy niche to occupy, she admits, since flowers -- unless they're topping a wedding cake, or mixed in a salad -- aren't eaten. Also, she says, most Americans are unaware they can buy organic flowers.
"The U.S. has been slow to get on this bandwagon, compared to Canada and Europe," says Feveyear, "People are not educated enough about the hidden, but real, hazards to the environment and to workers."
In their quest to supply ever-more-perfect fresh flowers and ornamental plants, most floriculture-farmers rely on a battery of pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers and preservatives. These chemicals escape into runoff, contaminating nearby fields and streams and can cause disabling health problems for flower workers. Meanwhile, chemical residues even stay on the flowers themselves. (See our "Connect the Dots" slideshow for more).
Awareness of this problem is growing, according to Amy Stewart, author of the book Flower Confidential. But the $6 billion American cut-flower industry has been slow to embrace eco-labels for cut flowers, even though such programs have been popular in Europe for years, she says. "It will take a little while to percolate through the supply chain," Stewart says, "but only if American consumer become much more in tune with this, as Europeans are."
One of those leading the charge for changes in floral practices is Gerald Prolman, a Marin County, Calif. businessman who recently founded Organic Bouquet, selling fresh flowers produced with a minimum of chemicals, and Organic Style, which markets an array of gifts in its "eco-lifestyle boutique."
"Flowers are typically grown with an artillery of pesticides, fungicides, synthetic fertilizers, nematocides, you name it," says Prolman. But he hopes that 2008 will be the year that consumers discover "green" flowers. Just as sales of organically-grown food have grown over the last decade (at an average 20 percent per year, according to the Organic Trade Association), Prolman anticipates sales of organic flowers will grow too.
It's difficult to grow organically, but not impossible, says John Nevado, who runs a small rose farm 2 hours south of Quito, Ecuador with 600 employees, certified under nine different eco-standards. "You should be able to give this beautiful flower with a clean conscience," says Nevado.
Until recently, it's been difficult to get organic fresh flowers, except seasonally, says Feveyear. However, the trend is growing. American consumers bought $16 million in organic flowers in 2005, and demand is growing by 50 percent a year.
That interest is likely to grow as new certification and labeling programs begin to blossom. One is VeriFlora, a certification and labeling program launched by a trade association, led by Prolman, and backed by retailers, including Whole Foods Market, Inc. It differs from "organic" in that it endorses "controlling pests and diseases with the least environmental impact," and "phasing in organic practices over time." Some 45 farms so far have earned the VeriFlora label, a standard providing for water conservation, recycling, safe storage of wastes and other measures, set up and monitored by Scientific Certification Systems.
Meanwhile, Transfair USA recently rolled out a new Fair Trade certification system for flowers as well, following on its successful program that began in Europe in 2001. Fair Trade-certified flowers are also cultivated with attention to rigorous "social and environmental standards," although Fair Trade also pays a percentage premium of the product to workers and communities.
Flower-growers certified under both Fair Trade and Veriflora systems steer clear of a list of hazardous chemicals deemed unsafe by the World Health Organization. In that respect they differ from some of the industry-backed certification systems like Florverde, launched by Colombia's flower exporters. In an Associated Press story by Joshua Goodman, from Bogota, Colombia, Florverde's director admitted that 36 percent of the toxic chemicals applied by Florverde farms in 2005 were listed as extremely or highly toxic by the World Health Organization.
For farms in Latin America, those eco-label programs make a big difference. At Agrogana, a small 7.5 acre rose farm, situated 11,000 feet up on the slopes of the Cotopaxi Volcano, in Ecuador workers say they're grateful for being certified Fair Trade.
Rogelia Patricia Aimacana, who works in the post-harvest section of the farm, sorting, bunching and getting roses ready for shipment, says she left another farm because of its poor working conditions, and failure to pay overtime. "When you come into the crunch period Before Valentine's Day, on other farms you would be forced to work from early in the morning until 1 or 2 a.m. in the morning the next day," she says. "And when you worked late you were not paid for overtime."
Another rose worker, Nancy Segovia, says that women (who make up most of the workforce) are kept away from fumigation (whereas other farms allowed it while they were in the greenhouse); they're given English-language courses for themselves and their children, as well as other classes and medical care. And pregnant women are also given extra meals and prenatal care.
So Segovia views the post-harvest shed where she works as a kind of big home. "It's a home to us in a sense that we women think of ourselves as mothers and the flowers are our children," Segovia says: "We are very poor but have a great deal of dignity and we're producing the best and finest -- and we benefit from the process of how good things are on this farm."
Back at the flower market, flora-vore Melissa Feveyear says she's been trying to get more of her warehouses to stock these flowers. She encouraged that sales of sustainable and organic flowers are growing, even though they remain a small part of the $20 billion floral industry.
"It's a little more expensive, and I feel no one is asking for it except for me. Most people don't know about this and they think it's hard to justify buying organic flowers unless you're chemically sensitive. But when I do educate customers, their eyes light up and they feel they've made a smarter purchase."
Rather than moving back into her Airstream trailer, Feveyear's opening a newer, bigger shop.
Where to find organic and fair trade flowers: