It’s British Flowers Week and this week I’m discovering the truth behind cut flowers: what is the environmental cost?
Flowers have long been admired by us British, whether it’s those of us who treat ourselves to a bunch now and then to brighten up the living room, or those of us who expect our other halves to deliver on birthdays, anniversaries or just for the hell of it. Yet, we do not often stop to think of where they came from, how long they’ve been sat in a bucket of water in Tesco or just how many flowers we buy as a nation each year – whilst it’s tricky to get the numbers, I can tell you that in the UK we spend a massive £2.2 billion each year, with around 90% of the blooms being imported (ref: The Guardian, 2016).
Imported… curious. See, some of us can’t keep a cactus alive, so how on earth do they manage to keep a bunch of flowers looking healthy, pretty and fresh whilst they’re transported miles around the globe by air or boat?! Baffling isn’t it? Well they all have their tips and tricks – preservative feed, cooled containers and likely lots and lots of water.
What I’m more interested in, however, is the environmental impact, so here’s the down low on the real cost of cut flowers (clue: it’s not £4.50 reduced to £2).
- WATER! I mean, I know it’s obvious but gallons of it is used in growing, transporting and storing flowers
- Storage: Again, water comes in, but also at this phase is the energy-guzzling warehouses that are kept at a desired temperature and light for the flowers to survive. This can only be acceptable if the warehouses are powered by renewables, for which there is no stipulation to do so, so naturally they’re not.
- Emissions: transport is by far one of the most intense carbon emissions sources – transportation of cut flowers by air, road and rail emit tonnes of CO2e into the atmosphere with each journey.
- Toxic chemicals: Many flower growers, particularly out in Africa (yep, check your labels, guaranteed at least half of the flowers you pick up will have come from Kenya *ahem* M&S), use chemical pesticide and herbicides. These are polluting natural water sources, which in these climates are scarce at the best of times, and also very damaging to workers should they inhale, consume or absorb the chemicals. Some 20% of the chemicals found to be used are actually so toxic they are banned in Europe and the US.
- Packaging: easy to forget when you’re thinking of the oh-so-organic and natural appearance of a bunch of flowers. However, just think of the three layers of cellophane and pouches of flower food you get when you purchase supermarket flowers? Although cellophane is actually a plant-based material, meaning it can biodegrade far quicker than other plastic products, there are again a lot of chemicals used in the mass-production process and it isn’t widely recycled – mostly because many people don’t know that cellophane is plant-based and therefore don’t separate it into their recycling bins.
“Owwhh but I just LOVE flowers!” I hear you say… it’s fine, I get it. Me too.
So what we gonna do about it? We’re going to stop being so lazy/cheap and we’re going to get them from a local market instead. There are lots of flower-growers in the UK, from people having small plots in their gardens from which they sell just a few bunches in summer to actual full size flower farms. Buying from local markets means that you skip at least 50% of the water impact, the storage and transportation emissions and usually the chemicals too as only seasonal flowers are grown meaning they don’t need a helping hand to grow like they do in unnatural circumstances.
Or, you could go out and pick your own – I’m not saying savagely destroy your local park’s flower beds but there’s lots of beautiful flowers growing in verges or along streets (see my little collection rescued from the roadside next to a building site).
True, you might not be able to get your favourite flowers all year round, but I dare you to find me an ugly flower that you couldn’t possibly have in your home…