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Budding consciousness: How to keep cut flowers in your life without making environmental or ethical trade-offs

by Jenn Yee

I once had a boyfriend who bought me as many roses on Valentine's Day as years that we had been together. We only got to three, but it was still a sweet gesture. And like most gift recipients, I was too pleased with the flowers to care where they came from, what florist my boyfriend had chosen (or more likely, the corner store that obliged him when he realized he'd forgotten the holiday) or, for that matter, to consider where they were grown

But this past Valentine's Day, I read about a debate raging in Britain about flowers and "food miles" - whether it is better for the environment to buy flowers imported from Africa and flown thousands of miles on carbon-emitting airplanes, or from within Europe, where a comparable amount of energy is used to heat the necessary greenhouses. One columnist from Britain called this scrutiny of flowers just an excuse for environmentalists to add another item to their "killjoy hitlist." I chuckled at the turn of phrase, but I did wonder: Could my flower-buying habits have an impact on the world?

It turns out that anyone buying a bouquet, myself included, is just the end point of a long journey for those flowers, which are cultivated and then harvested into cold storage, shipped via international airlines, trucked to a neighborhood grocer, and - finally - delivered to the vase on the dining room table. Often these flowers travel more miles than their buyer might on a long vacation. And they leave in their fragrant wake pesticide-ridden farms and a trail of greenhouse gases. But from within the floral industry, an awareness of these effects has led to certifications and labels that allow us to buy flowers - without sprouting guilty consciences.

About 70 percent of flowers sold in the United States come from abroad, and most of those are imported from Colombia and Ecuador. This trend toward importing started back in the '60s, when a few businessmen began looking for sunnier climes in which to grow popular types of blooms year-round, according to Amy Stewart, author of Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers. Global transportation had improved, and it became feasible for us to ship flowers over longer distances, kicking off an industry that today warrants a closer look.

Today the cut-flower industry is a $6.2 billion business in the United States, according to U.S. census data. While that seems like a lot, we're still trailing other parts of the world in our flower purchases.

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