The hidden environmental cost of Valentine’s Day roses

It all comes down to shipping.

Flowers are perhaps the easiest Valentine’s Day gift to give. They’re cheaper than jewelry and healthier than chocolates. If you plan ahead, you can give your sweetheart a nice bouquet from a florist, or maybe one of those creepy bears made of roses that are all over Instagram. If you’re not much of a planner, you can pick up a less-nice-but-still-very-fine arrangement from a grocery store the day of; flowers don’t require a ton of effort to get, even if you wait until the very last minute. But the ubiquity and accessibility of Valentine’s Day flowers obscure the long, complex journey they have to take from the greenhouse to your house, and the environmental costs that add up along the way.

American shoppers are expected to spend nearly $2 billion on flowers — most of which will be roses — this Valentine’s Day. Almost all of these roses will have been flown in from Latin America, specifically the sunny, mountainous regions of Colombia and Ecuador, the world’s second- and third-largest exporters of cut flowers after the Netherlands. Colombia alone shipped more than 4 billion flowers to the US last year, according to the Washington Post. Valentine’s Day makes up more than one-fifth of the country’s rose growers’ annual revenue.

Climate certainly plays a role in the Andean nations’ dominance. Even California, the leading producer of domestic roses, isn’t always warm enough to produce the volume of roses shoppers have come to expect around Valentine’s Day. But climatic differences don’t tell the whole story. There’s the fact that labor costs are much lower in Colombia and Ecuador. And, as the Post points out, there’s also the fact that both countries’ floriculture industries have benefited from a longstanding trade agreement with the US that was originally intended to give Andean farmers viable alternatives to coca, the plant used to make cocaine.

In 1991, at the height of Colombia’s war against cartel boss Pablo Escobar, Congress passed the Andean Trade Preference Act, which lifted duties on certain imports from Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. The Andean flower industry began to bloom, crowding out domestic growers who found it difficult to compete with their Andean counterparts who could produce flowers not only more cheaply but also year-round.

When we talk about flowers and sustainability, the biggest issue is how flowers get from their point of origin to retailers across the country. During most of the year, flowers are shipped on passenger planes, Amy Stewart, an investigative reporter and author of the 2007 book Flower Confidential, told me. “They’re put on planes that are going anyway.” But hundreds of cargo planes full of flowers fly from the Andes to Miami in the month before Valentine’s Day. According to the Post, 30 cargo jets fly from Colombia to Miami every day in the three weeks leading up to the big day and a similar amount fly out from Ecuador, amounting to more than 15,000 tons of flowers delivered in less than a month.

These flights have important consequences for the rest of the planet. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, comprising 28 percent of the country’s total emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Just over a quarter of US transportation emissions come from freight over air, land, and sea. Growing aviation demand, for both passengers and cargo, helped fuel an increase in emissions in the United States last year, reversing years of decline. This is significant, as greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane trap heat in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Demand for roses isn’t solely to blame for this crisis, but the transportation network needed to bring delicate blossoms across oceans has an outsized environmental footprint. The International Council on Clean Transportation crunched the numbers last year and estimated that those three weeks of flower delivery flights burn approximately 114 million liters of fuel, emitting approximately 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Once the roses land in Miami, they get fashioned into bouquets before being loaded onto refrigerated delivery trucks that will drive across the country. The flowers need to be kept cold every step of the way, otherwise they’ll wilt. “Believe it or not, flowers are for the most part shipped with no water at all,” Stewart told me. “The key to keeping flowers alive in transit is temperature, humidity, and the mix of oxygen and CO2.”

This refrigeration causes trucks to burn more fuel, meaning they have greater carbon emissions than their non-refrigerated counterparts. On average, refrigerated trucks use 25 percent more fuel than non-refrigerated ones, Michael Ayres, managing director of the mobile refrigeration company the Dearman Group, told Take Part in 2015. Plus, as Andy Murdock wrote for Vox in 2017, most trucks in the US still run on diesel fuel, which produces more air pollutants than gasoline.

All of these emissions have a compounding effect. Carbon dioxide emissions in particular have been the biggest contributor to climate change since 1750, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. That’s largely because of the way CO2 stays in the atmosphere. Unlike methane, which leaves the atmosphere in about a decade, and nitrous oxide, which takes about a century to break down, carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere for hundreds or even thousands of years. That means that a lot of the carbon dioxide that was released into the atmosphere during the Industrial Revolution, for example, still lingers today. And instead of reducing these emissions, we just keep adding more.

The sustainability of imported flowers is complicated, as the actual growing of Andean roses in the winter may be more sustainable than doing so in the United States. “You don’t need a lot of power to get roses to bloom in February if you’re in Ecuador or Colombia,” Stewart said. “If you’re in California and there’s an unexpected freeze, you might have to run the heaters in your greenhouse in order to get them to bloom in time for Valentine’s Day. A greenhouse full of roses is of no use to you on February 15th.” It’s difficult to determine, however, whether the benefits of growing roses where they’re in season outweighs the harm done by transportation.

The environmental cost of shipping flowers has inspired a recent push for sustainable, locally grown bouquets. “Flowers are put into a luxury category. Many people only buy flowers at holidays like Valentine’s Day, so it’s appropriate to question what this multimillion- if not multibillion-dollar industry is doing to the planet on a holiday that’s man-made,” Debra Prinzing, the author of The 50 Mile Bouquet, told me.

Prinzing is the founder of what she calls the “Slow Flowers movement,” an initiative that encourages people to buy in-season flowers from small growers in their area. The term is a reference to the “slow food” movement, itself a reaction against large agribusiness and in support of small family farms that grow organic, in-season produce. “There are thousands of people starting small, micro, or boutique flower farms around North America in all 50 states and probably every province who are trying to keep what they’re growing entirely local and have zero [carbon] footprint, or a small footprint,” Prinzing said. She called it the “sentimental counterbalance to this flood of imports.”

Slow Flowers’ website includes a directory of more than 700 growers in the United States and Canada, many of whom will have flowers available for Valentine’s Day — but most won’t be roses. Instead, these growers offer “early spring crops that can be grown in greenhouses,” like ranunculus, anemones, tulips, narcissus, and hellebores.

But American farms aren’t the only ones interested in sustainability. A number of certification programs in Ecuador and Colombia help shoppers and florists identify flowers grown by farms that meet certain labor or environmental standards, sort of the equivalent to “organic” and “cruelty-free” certifications you often find in the grocery store.

Ximena Franco is the director of the Colombian organization FlorVerde Sustainable Flowers, one of these certification groups. She told me that 92 growers in the Bogotá area meet FlorVerde certification standards, which include regulations on plant origins, energy efficiency, carbon footprints, and labor practices. “Approximately 40 percent of all flowers exported by Colombian growers are certified by FlorVerde Sustainable Flowers,” she said. “We measure growers’ carbon footprints, and also deal with issues like preventing contamination, recycling, water recirculation, composting, every facet of turning this into a circular agriculture system where contamination and carbon emissions are limited.”

“We ultimately want to ensure good quality so that the product lasts longer in a vase — so clients are satisfied — while also limiting environmental effects on the way there,” she said.

Franco pointed out that FlorVerde operates on a business-to-business model: The certification process is intended to help distributors choose sustainable flowers. A customer buying a bouquet in a grocery store may not know whether the flowers they’re buying were certified by FlorVerde or any other environmental watchdog.

But much like labels on “organic” food, sustainability means something different from farmer to farmer. “Practices can really vary,” Stewart said, and organic, pesticide-free flowers aren’t always best for the environment. For example, some farmers have “figured out that one carefully controlled application of fungicide is less of an environmental hazard than using the organic methods over and over again every week. There’s a tricky balancing act there.”

And when it comes down to it, flowers are just one of the many environmentally hazardous things we consume every day. “We like to pick on something like flowers because it’s interesting and sexy and very specific,” Stewart said. “We can get really sucked into analyzing the environmental impact of one thing like flowers and forget that everything we wear and everything we touch all day long has an environmental impact as well.”

Stewart noted that Colombia and Ecuador’s flower industries have provided a viable, ethical alternative to coca cultivation and have given thousands of people access to jobs they may not otherwise have. But if you do want to make a more environmentally sound choice this Valentine’s Day, you could always ditch traditional red roses and seek out locally grown alternatives.

After all, there’s no better way to say “I love you” than with a low carbon footprint.