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Is it ethical to buy cut flowers?

Until we demand ethical flowers, the chemical fallout will continue to leave a bad smell in the air, says Lucy Siegle

Sunday May 14, 2006

I don't often envy American consumers, but when it comes to cut flowers they have far more options to buy ethically minded cut flowers. This is largely thanks to Gerald Prolman, an eco entrepreneur who set up Organic Bouquet, which has proved to be a hit with the consumer and pioneered eco labels for floral products. Now the US ethical flower market is growing nicely - worth $8m last year - which is what you might call real flower power.

By contrast, the European ethical flower scene seems to have been killed off by a cold snap. There is just one European organic flower wholesaler, the Dutch-based Florganic, which supplies Waitrose - the only UK supermarket to proffer any organic blooms. www.wigglywigglers.com; 0800 216 990).

Meanwhile, the UK market for conventional flowers is huge - raking in £1.5bn a year. Eighty-five per cent and rising of flowers sold in the UK are imported. Kenyan cut flowers dominate the market, but increasingly there are challenges from all over the globe. There has been an 83 per cent increase in air-freighted flowers in the past four years alone, all moved round the world using an energy intensive refrigeration process. Last year, 19,000 tonnes of flowers were imported into the UK from Kenya, racking up 33,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

So for pretty things in a vase, cut flowers punch well above their weight in terms of environmental fallout. They are grown using copious doses of fertilisers, insecticides, fungicides, nematocides and plant-growth regulators, generally washed straight into waterways. One study of greenhouses in Mexico growing flowers for the global market found 36 chemicals in air samples from the hothouse, including, horrifyingly, DDT.

Fairtrade flowers, however, offer a slim window of ethical opportunity for UK customers. In Kenya the Fairtrade Foundation has enlisted a number of growers to bring certified roses to the UK, which retail through supermarkets. True, there are criticisms: unlike other Fairtrade initiatives that focus on improving the lot of small producers, the Kenyan model works with huge farms; it can also be said to bolster rather than challenge supermarket dominance back home and to exacerbate the problem of air miles. However, these flowers do offer a more equitable deal to the workers in Kenya, and arguably for the first time it enshrines the rights of growers.

I consider this a very small petal-strewn step in the right direction. Unfortunately the bulk of the global cut-flower trade seems to be bounding off in the other direction. Unless consumers start demanding ethical flowers, the flower of the future will be destined to be a globalised, pesticide-ridden bloom, raised on a vast monoculture plain and developed at the expense of indigenous flora and fauna by workers paid a pittance. It's a rose by any other name, but if definitely won't smell sweet.



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