‘Why Flowers Matter’ is a series reviewing the impact and benefits of the global and local growing industries.
How do your (cut) flowers grow?
In a land far away,
But how, I don’t know.
I’ve never bought flowers for a man so it seems a safe assumption that most are given to women. Last night walking through a London train station, there were many women carefully juggling huge wraps of precious flowers rushing onto trains. I thought about what those flowers might mean to each of them.
The simplicity of a cut flower is emblematic of the natural world or a garden. We’ve all seen those images of tulip flower fields in Holland. In the UK, we might think of pretty meadows in rising or setting sunlight. It is easy to romanticise flower growing based on our presumptions.
We don’t grow nearly enough flowers in the UK to fulfil supply and certainly can’t provide the volumes that go through supermarkets or wholesalers.
Inevitably those flowers are imported and a quick search on the internet for African or South America flower growers will bring up images like this.
These images appear reassuring. Women seem empowered, growing beautiful flowers, employed and looking well.
In last week’s article, I focused on the toxic chemicals that are used to make those monoculture plants so green and unblemished. How those chemicals are still on your stems when you cut and arrange them at home. (1)
Take that thought one step further, who sprays those flowers and how are they cultivated or harvested?
Women are often depicted as the beneficiaries of the global flower market, which seems like a great PR angle. Giving access to jobs, healthcare and education.
Sadly, women are most likely impacted by poor working conditions.
In Kenya, women make up 60-70 percent of the growing workforce, and flowers are the country’s second largest export after tea. In Colombia, flower production is the largest employer of women in rural areas. With little labour, health and safety laws in those countries, women are paying the highest price for our cheap flowers. (2)
In simple terms, the global flower industry is harmful to women.
Work days of 16 hours labouring at incredible speeds in dangerous conditions. Little is known about how children and babies are looked after but there are reports of sexual abuse, forced pregnancy tests and very low pay. (3)
Their exposure to harmful pesticides, herbicides and preservatives result in long term health issues, cancers and birth defects. It is not just those in direct contact that are affected. Like smoking, passive contact has alarming results. Children in floriculture communities have been found to have temporary changes in their neurobehavioral activity after harvest compared to same measurements before, due to pesticide use. Graduating with artificially low scores, this creates long term problems for communities.(4)
An easy solution to avoid these consumer concerns might be to buy British Flowers with the protection of health and safety and employment laws. But the UK is not a safe place for a picker either.
Have you ever wondered how a bunch of Narcissus can be sold in the UK for £1. The price hasn’t increased in 20 years. Convictions of Modern Slavery in the UK, especially around the Narcissus and bulb growing industries continues to be a huge problem for larger buyers and in the wider agricultural industry.(5)
Pressure is seemingly on the consumer for wanting to buy flowers. We buy millions of them to celebrate and mark the importance of a life occasion or simply to bring some joy into the home.
In the UK, we have the luxury turning a blind eye for cheap flowers. We’ve consciously distanced ourselves from from realities with nice packaging and evocative ‘seasonal flower’ labels. In simple brown paper and wraps, there is no way of knowing their provenance, how they were grown or by whom.
They aren’t even in the vase long enough to question how they cost so little. They are meant to represent a connection to something simpler, natural and beautiful.
Do they really represent those things when you consider the real cost of those flowers on your table, and to whose life?
UK importer Quartz Flowers admitted in 2015 that few of its commercial customers ask for anything more than a basic “phytosanitary” (plant health) import certificate. “What we find in the UK with our customers [is that] if the product is of good quality, is consistent, then they don’t really ask for that [sustainability certification]”, says a spokesperson for the importer. (6)
At a recent industry roundtable hosted by the “Sustainable Cut Flowers Project’, I’ve learnt that this is still the case. ‘Packers’, the importing companies that bring flowers into the UK are asking for retailer pressure. Without such, growers across the world have little incentive to develop better conditions for workers or environmental practices.
Does the blame lay squarely at the retailers?
They know the conditions workers are exposed to yet they continue to buy and sell flowers at artificially low prices, at volume. They perpetuate the image that flowers represent seasonality and a connection to the natural world through branding and words.
What on earth can be done?
For further information and research.
‘Biological Monitoring of Exposure to Pesticide Residues Among Belgium Florists’ Tumi/ Joly/ Vieminckx/ Sciffers
Farmers Weekly and ‘Assesments of Human trafficking for Forced Labour on the UK Seasonal Labour Pilot.’ by RESPECT International
This is the fourth in a series ‘Why Flowers Matter’, the fourth will be delivered next Sunday. I want to take you a little further into the world of flower growing. Is it as beautiful as you thought? Please like and comment to help more people find this newsletter and grow it organically. Better still, share it with your friends or on your social media.
Thank you for reading. This newsletter is a reader-supported publication. The best way to support it is to become a paid subscriber for bonus Tuesday newsletters, hire me to mentor or consult with you about your garden or growing business or hire me to speak.
Your support is very appreciated and helps me grow this newsletter organically without the chemical inputs of sponsorship or ads.