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Valentine roses, candy go PC

By Bonnie Miller Rubin
Chicago Tribune - February 13, 2006

Tribune staff reporter

The recipe for romance used to be so simple: Flowers. Chocolate. Jewelry. It's as synonymous with Valentine's Day as Cupid and his arrow.

But if your sweetheart has a social conscience, such tokens of affection could miss the target by a mile. In these politically correct times, gift gaffes go way beyond taking a vegan girlfriend out for veal scaloppine.

Chocolate truffles? Perhaps produced on the backs of child laborers. Roses? Often grown with harmful pesticides. That bauble in a tiny box? What of mining practices?

"More and more consumers care about these issues," said Payal Sampat of Earthworks, which advocates mining reforms. "A decade ago, people weren't concerned about sweatshops. ... Now it has moved into the mainstream. The same will be true of engagement and wedding rings."

John Peck of Family Farm Defenders in Wisconsin wants to know: Would chocolate taste as sweet if recipients knew that children were forced to pick the cocoa beans? "If you're going to give something to someone you care about, it should reflect your values," Peck said.

That appears to be a belief shared by many Americans. A 2004 corporate citizenship study conducted by Cone, a Boston-based communications agency, found that 90 percent would consider switching products or services if they felt the company behaved illegally or unethically.

Still, let's be realistic: Many men are grateful just to remember the date, much less worry about promoting economic justice at the same time.

"I try to stay abreast of these issues ... but when it comes to gift-giving, I usually end up getting what my wife wants," said Victor Crivello of Chicago.

A member of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, Crivello is no slouch when it comes to protecting the planet. Yet, on Tuesday, his lone nod to Mother Nature is to choose a valentine card made of recycled paper. "If the products aren't readily available, it's just hard to keep all those priorities," he said.

Still there are alternatives:

Flowers

Concern has been mounting over the use of toxic pesticides to grow flowers in such countries as Ecuador and Colombia, which export about two-thirds of flowers bought in the U.S. Often the workers tend the blooms in confined greenhouses.

Gerald Prolman, founder of OrganicBouquet.com, said his blooms are free of such thorny issues. in The purveyor of pesticide-free flowers has carved out a tiny segment--$3 million--of the $20 billion industry.

Each of Prolman's bouquets carries the Veriflora logo, a new, independent eco-certification developed by Scientific Certification Systems, a neutral organization that monitors agricultural practices.

The government requires that flowers arrive in the U.S. pest free, so trade laws encourage the use of harsh chemicals. But any threat to flower workers has not captured public awareness in the same way as other organic products.

"You are not eating flowers," Peter Moran, director of the Society of American Florists, told Utne magazine recently. "It's not the same as food."

Last year, Americans bought $8 million worth of organic flowers, and the figure is expected to grow. This Valentine's Day, Prolman expects to move 120,000 roses--an all-time high. A dozen long-stems sell for about $40.

"It's all a matter of educating the consumer," he said. "Organic flowers say I love you--and the Earth too."

Chocolates

On Valentine's Day in downtown Madison, Wis., passersby are treated to the sight of activists dressed in slave costumes passing out samples of fair-trade chocolates. The theatrics are John Peck's way of urging consumers to alleviate poverty and child slavery through the marketplace.

"I think the idea that some 8-year-old is a slave to produce chocolate would make most sweethearts gag," Peck said.

Generally, fair-trade products eliminate the middleman, allowing farmers to deal directly with buyers. To be certified by the Fairtrade Labeling Organization International, growers must be inspected annually for unethical practices.

Joan Steuer of Chocolate Marketing, a Los Angeles consulting firm, said many manufacturers are engaged in fair-trade practices even if they are not certified. "On Valentine's Day, most people are interested in some beautifully packaged indulgence," Steuer said. "That's what says love."

Less than 1 percent of the $13 billion U.S. chocolate market is designated fair-trade, which means don't expect to dash in to just any store and pick up a box. One well-known brand is Divine Chocolate, made by the London-based Day Chocolate Co. A Ghanaian farmers co-operative grows the cocoa and is part owner of the company, which has won the endorsement of such humanitarian groups as Lutheran World Relief. A popular Valentine's Day item this year is a humble red jute bag from Bangladesh, filled with chocolate bars, for $14.

Jewelry

Valentine's Day ranks second only to Christmas for marriage proposals. But that engagement ring could be tarnished by a host of sins, including funding terrorism and environmental abuses, activists say.

First, there is the issue of "conflict," or "blood," diamonds, which got attention in 1999 when news accounts found that the diamond trade was funding wars in such countries as Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone. After organizations such as Amnesty International called for more transparency, the gem industry came up with a voluntary self-policing system called the Kimberley Process, an agreement among nearly 70 countries that produce and trade diamonds.

Peggy Jo Donahue, a spokeswoman for Jewelers of America, said the association "strongly supports all efforts by governments and industry to ensure that revenues from diamonds will never again be used to finance armed conflict."

Concerned suitors can ask a retailer to see the conflict-free warranty from the supplier. Another option: Buy from Canada, which, unlike the U.S., requires origin guarantees.

Less well-known is a "No Dirty Gold" campaign targeting mining practices that activists say are bad for workers and the environment.

The jewelers association encourages members to increase the percentage of gold they acquire that is mined in ways that respect both workers and the Earth, Donahue said. But that is a voluntary effort.

Until stronger reforms are enacted, Sampat of Earthworks suggests choosing something recycled, such as a family heirloom or an antique.

"This is an important purchase that is very symbolic," she said. "It shouldn't come at the expense of the environment."

By Bonnie Miller Rubin
Originally published in the February 13, 2006 issue of Chicago Tribune


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