Even Flowers Seek to Be Eco-Friendly


OF AND FOR THE EARTH At California Pajarosa Floral, the owners invested about $100,000 to gain a “sustainability” label.

Published: February 3, 2008

Hannah Ling sells organic and sustainable flowers in her West Village shop.

SANTA CRUZ, California–The Bonny Doon Garden Company, a downtown flower kiosk here, was recently selling a bucket of red and fuchsia anemones that were “organic.” Ecuadorean roses the size of an orange were “certified.” Roses from a nearby farm were “locally grown.” Was the kiosk selling flowers, or lettuce?

Pesticide contamination doesn’t usually come to mind when buying long-stemmed roses. But that is precisely what florists like Bonny Doon are asking their customers to think about. Teresa Sabankaya, the shop’s owner, said that when she opened in 2003, “some people would look at me like, ‘Are you nuts?’ ”

Now, at least, “people become engaged,” she said. “Forty percent of people will say: ‘That’s nice. Why would it matter? We’re not eating them.’ ”

True, flowers are rarely eaten. They aren’t worn against the skin like organic cotton, or rubbed on the body like soap. Perhaps that’s why organic flowers have not been a big business, especially compared with organic fruits and vegetables. The Organic Trade Association says organic food and beverages had $17 billion in sales in 2006. Flowers – a $21-billion-a-year industry – brought in $19 million in organic sales.

That may be changing. The environmentally friendly flower is now sold on Web sites like organicbouquet.com, by small florists like Ms. Sabankaya and by big retailers like Sam’s Club and FTD, the floral delivery network, which last year introduced a line of sustainably grown irises and lilies from California and roses from Ecuador.

And as in other industries with increasing demand for green products, the floral industry is debating what is environmentally correct. Should flowers be organic – that is, grown without synthetic or toxic pesticides? Or should the emphasis be on fair trade, meaning that the workers who grow and cut them are safe and well paid? Or should consumers favor flowers grown locally, not flown or trucked over long distances?

A majority of cut flowers sold in the United States, 79 percent, are imported, mostly from countries with mild climates, like Colombia and Ecuador. Orchid plants are supplied by Taiwan, the Netherlands and Thailand. Flower bulbs, such as tulips and lilies, are supplied by the Netherlands.

But only a small minority of flower farms have adopted environmentally friendly methods or bother with occupational health and safety measures for workers, who can suffer pesticide-related illnesses like headaches, rashes and birth abnormalities among their children.

Big environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council have added flowers to their agenda and are encouraging the public to look for floral eco-labels that can now be found in flower shops, grocery stores and other flower retailers.

The labels emphasize different aspects of sustainability. Fair Trade and VeriFlora, two big organizations whose labels appear on flowers sold in the United States, impose strict environmental and labor standards on farms they audit, though they do not require them to be fully organic.

PRETTY IN GREEN? A move is on to make flowers more eco-friendly.

In California, where most American flower production is based, California Pajarosa Floral in Watsonville invested about $100,000 to comply with all regulations necessary to be certified by VeriFlora, said Paul Furman, the manager. He said his company, which grows roses hydroponically in seven hectares of greenhouses and is one of the nation’s largest flower growers, would have had to spend more if it hadn’t already been using some green practices, like using predatory mites to kill thrips and spider mites that discolor petals and damage foliage.

But Mr. Furman sees a payoff. “We want to be part of pioneering something that’s good for the industry,” he said. “We’re in the infancy stage of this, so we don’t know what to expect, but we do know that the whole world is going green.”


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