The last couple of years have seen flower fans branch out (pun intended), with plant and bulb sales booming during the pandemic. Yet, when it comes to Valentine’s Day, traditional red roses can be harder to resist than the lure of a forbidden love affair. A dozen of these long-stemmed flowers might once have signalled the height of romance, but after a quick look at the environmental impact they don’t smell quite as sweet for UK-based buyers. So how can you make sure you are giving an ethical bunch on 14 February?
The bloom is off the rose
Due to Britain’s climate, the vast majority of roses sold in this country during the early months of the year are imported. Most come from Kenya, where it is warm enough for them to grow naturally, or the Netherlands, where they are grown under artificial heat and light. Around 8m stems (570 tonnes) are imported via Heathrow alone during February – about three times as many as any other month, leading to a carbon footprint of around 30kg of CO2 for a mixed bouquet of 11 Kenyan and Dutch stems. They are often sold at a loss, in the hope that customers will buy other, more expensive items as they shop.
“We do a lot of work in events, and often we would find there was a huge disconnect,” says Olivia Wilson, co-founder of SSAW Collective, a community of chefs, florists and growers, who are urging buyers to take a seasonal approach to flowers. “Sustainable sourcing of the food menu would be considered, but the tables would be covered with imported flowers.”
Valentine’s Day is perhaps the biggest culprit when it comes to shopping out of season. “It is one of the most significant events in the floristry calendar but it’s very stark in February,” says Wilson. “When you look outside and see what is growing naturally, it definitely doesn’t look anything like traditional rose bouquets.”
As with food, supporting local businesses is often the best option. “Once flowers are flown into the country, they are usually transported around the UK in huge refrigerated vehicles, which also have an impact on the environment,” says Alison Down, a flower farmer at Boho Flowers, Hertfordshire. “From cutting to customer, it can take a week.”
Have a spring fling
If you want to say it with flowers, roses are not your only option. “A lot of Cornish growers have narcissi available by February, especially the bridal crown and paperwhite [daffodil] varieties,” says Jess Geissendorfer, who also co-founded SSAW Collective. In addition, she recommends snowdrops, cyclamen, quince and winter-flowering blossoms as alternatives to roses.
“I’ve seen a shift to tulips and early spring bulbs,” says Debra Prinzing, founder of the Slow Flowers Society and author of books including The 50 Mile Bouquet. “Other gift ideas are also gaining popularity, such as flower subscription services – so you give the certificate to your sweetheart now, but maybe the first delivery doesn’t arrive until May.” SSAW Collective’s own subscription service launches this month, offering sustainable flowers on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis.
“Last year we provided seasonal spring bouquets for Valentine’s Day, grown in the UK without pesticides and not wrapped in plastic,” says Down. “You could have hellebores, narcissi, hyacinths, tulips, anemones and alstroemeria – you can get all those from UK growers. We also use lots of dried grasses, contorted hazel and willow (they’re like wiggly sticks with little catkins), lots of eucalyptus and evergreen foliage.”
Bloom & Wild, the online postal florist, is forgoing red roses on Valentine’s Day for the second year running. “We ran a survey and found that 58% of people thought roses were a cliche,” says Charlotte Langley, VP of brand and communications. “From a sustainability point of view, this also meant we had no bouquet wastage last year. Historically, we’d seen double-digit wastage on red rose bouquets because the demand drops off so dramatically after Valentine’s Day.”
You don’t need to look far to know that dried flowers are all the rage. “Some farmers are growing flowers specifically to dry, cutting them at the right time so that they retain that colour, and a lot of them have that pink/red Valentine’s Day palette,” says Prinzing. “I know someone who is teaching a wreath workshop for Valentine’s using all dried flowers, showcasing them in a new way.” Being long-lasting, dried flowers also help to minimise waste, which leads us to …
What happens when the love dies?
Or, at least, what should you do when your ethical posy wilts? “A lot of flowers dry well by being hung upside down,” says Wilson. “Tulips make excellent confetti and spring flowers press really nicely. You don’t need a flower press; you can do it using blotting paper and books.”
Langley advises: “If you’re not feeling crafty then it’s best to pop them in your compost or garden waste bin, rather than in your normal bin, otherwise they would be sent to landfill.”
It’s what’s on the outside that counts
Opting for imported blooms is not the only pitfall for shoppers when choosing a bouquet for their valentine. “You also want to think about packaging,” says Langley. “Our letterbox packaging has been 100% recyclable for a long time but we’ve now moved our flower food from plastic to paper sachets and we’re working on swapping bubble wrap for cardboard vase protectors and using compostable moisture bags.”
“Another major sustainability issue is the conventional green florists’ foam,” says Prinzing. “It’s single-use plastic, which doesn’t break down in landfill. Giving flowers which use an alternative shows your recipient that you care about the environment.”
Put a label on it
Aside from eschewing roses, there are other things to look out for if you want to be sure you’re picking an ethical posy.
“Pesticide use is incredibly harmful for the environments where flowers are grown en masse and for the people working with them,” says Wilson. “We’re really passionate about improving labelling because it’s difficult for florists to always know where their flowers are coming from, and what chemicals have been used to grow them.”
Down agrees that better labelling would also make it much easier for customers to identify ethical bouquets. “You want to see that they are fair trade and organic,” she says.
If you’re not buying directly from a local grower, then it’s worth considering how the businesses you buy from have committed to supporting local communities. “Do a little bit more research into where flowers come from,” says Geissendorfer. “Search online for what’s available in your local area; it’s really rewarding to build relationships with small independent businesses.”
A little research can go a long way when buying from bigger floristry businesses, too. “If a company is taking their responsibility to the environment and the community seriously, they should be able to show that; check out their credentials before buying,” advises Langley. “Are they thinking deeply about issues across the whole spectrum, from sourcing to delivery and packaging? Are they offsetting emissions and working on a plan to get to net zero?”
Lastly, get into the habit of seeking out seasonal produce. “By summer, you can get a bouquet that’s full of variety, grown entirely in the UK. There really is no need to import anything,” says Wilson. “It’s important to think about flowers in the same way you might fruit and veg: strawberries in December would feel a little odd.”