When choosing a beautiful bouquet for Mom this Mother’s Day, avoid pesticides and shameful labour practices. Select flowers labelled natural, fair trade, and organic.
Every Mother’s Day Stella Lee gives her mom a big bunch of flowers, complete with some of her favourite blooms such as roses and lilies. It had never occurred to Lee that there is more to those bouquets than their eye-popping colours and soothing scents.
Looming with pesticides
Like conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, so many cut flowers that are sold everywhere from corner stores to mega malls are doused with pesticides.
Lee became aware of that fact upon shopping for her mom last year. She noticed a tiny sign on a floral shop window indicating that it carried organic, fair trade flowers.
“I’d never thought about flowers being anything other than natural,” Lee says. “You never really think about it; you just think they’re beautiful.”
Just as interest in organic produce has grown over the years, so has the desire among health- and eco-conscious consumers to know exactly what’s in the flowers they bring home, how they’re grown, and where they come from.
Inside the industry
Most of the cut flowers in Canadian stores stem from Columbia and Ecuador. The cut flower industry represents a booming business, with the global market valued at almost US$7 billion in 2009. But it’s also a field that all too often takes a toll on environmental and human health.
Toxic chemical exposure
According to the Washington, DC-based International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), an advocacy organization aimed at establishing just and humane treatment of workers around the world, workers on some flower farms in Colombia and Ecuador are regularly exposed to toxic chemicals that have been linked to respiratory problems, rashes, miscarriages, premature births, and congenital malformations.
A 2004 report by Oxfam found that some flower companies use more than 30 different pesticides, while an International Labour Organization survey found that only 22 percent of Ecuadorian flower companies train their workers in the proper use of chemicals.
Those same harsh pesticides and fungicides leach into soil and can be carried to rivers and streams, harming ecosystems and various species of plant and animal life.
Human rights abuses
There are labour and human rights abuses, too, according to the ILRF. In Ecuador, for example, many children and minors work in the industry instead of going to school.
Furthermore, many workers are prevented from organizing independent unions through tactics such as illegal firings, threats to close plantations where workers are organizing, and blacklisting unionists. Many women, meanwhile, report being sexually harassed and forced to take pregnancy tests as a condition for hiring (since companies wish to avoid paying for maternity leaves).
It’s no wonder there’s a burgeoning trend toward ethically grown, eco-friendly flowers, including imports that are held up to the same kind of rigorous standards as those for fair trade coffee and chocolate.
Although those who work in the industry are at greatest risk of health effects of pesticides, consumers need to be aware of the potential consequences as well.
“This makes me think of the lyrics to that song on the radio, ‘She ain’t pretty; she just looks that way,’” says naturopath Jonn Matsen. “With cut flowers, what you see isn’t necessarily what you get. By sniffing them, you’re inhaling toxic fumes. If you touch them, then toxic chemicals are going through your skin. Just because you don’t eat them doesn’t mean it’s not something to think about.”
Naturopath Natalie Waller says that for most people, exposure levels are extremely low. However, pesticides have been linked to specific health effects, ranging from neurological disorders to cancer, she notes. It’s important for pregnant and breastfeeding women to be aware of the potential transfer of harmful substances to their fetus or newborn.
“The higher the exposure level, the greater the health concern,” Waller says. “Flowers are beautiful, and we don’t want to stop brightening up our lives; they bring us closer to nature. But we can think about what we’re introducing into our environment and move toward a more organic way of doing things.
“We can’t avoid chemicals altogether; they’re ubiquitous in our environment,” she adds. “But we can do our best to try to avoid chemicals and optimize our bodies’ ability to deal with chemicals.”
Some ways to do that, Waller says, include doing regular cleanses, having HEPA air filters at home, and eating a diet high in fibre to help the body effectively eliminate toxins.
The solution to pesticide-laden petals is not to stop buying cut flowers altogether, according to Sima Arman, spokesperson for the Flower Label Program, a Bonn, Germany-based association of human rights groups, labour unions, and flower producers and retailers that promotes socially and environmentally responsible flower cultivation.
Several certification and labelling programs have been developed to meet the demand for fairly produced flowers. Such initiatives, some of which conduct audits on farms that claim higher labour standards for workers, have the potential to change conditions on the ground.
“I often meet people who, after learning about the terrible social and environmental circumstances of the cut flower industry, decide not to buy any flowers anymore,” Arman tells alive. “This conclusion would be a tragedy to countries like Ecuador, for which this industry represents an enormously important branch of their economy. It’s far more advisable to look for labelled flowers.”
Louise Gadoury, marketing specialist for Sierra Flower Trading, a Canadian group of flower buyers, encourages consumers to ask shops and suppliers to carry ethical products. “Just ask,” Gadoury says. “Buying power is massively underestimated. Consumer power is the most commanding force in the marketplace.
“If we all made the right buying choices, our supermarkets and all the people involved in any type of production would have to react accordingly, and make the world a better place one flower at a time.”
Enjoying flowers naturally
- Look for flowers that carry a label such as Veriflora, Fairtrade, or Fair Flowers Fair Plants.
- Tell your flower retailer that you care about what products they carry and share your desire for sustainable, environmentally friendly, fair trade flowers.
- Support organic, locally grown flowers by looking for such products at farms or farmers’ markets.
- Plant your own garden.