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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Beyond Roses

Jan 31, 2020 12:00PM ● By Anna Marie Imbordino

Sustainable Floral Choices


by Anna Marie Imbordino

Nothing says Happy Valentine’s Day like a bouquet of flowers. In 2019, the Society of American Florists reported that 28 percent of American adults purchased flowers or plants as gifts for the holiday. But making sustainable or local floral choices can be harder than we may think.

Floral farming in the U.S. has declined rapidly since the 1970s due to higher profit margins from other agricultural options such as soy and corn, as well as increased industrial farming practices overseas. The largest domestic producer of florals is currently California, with cut flowers accounting for 76 percent of national production.

Most consumer floral options are shipped from South America, and almost all consumer roses come from Ecuador and Colombia, raising sustainability issues within the floral industry. “There is a serious carbon footprint attached to florals coming from South America,” states Lynn Fosbender, owner of Pollen Floral Design, in Chicago, and co-founder of the Green Wedding Alliance. Fosbender explains, “In addition to the carbon footprint, we have to also consider poor environmental regulations and protection efforts on these overseas farms.”

As more consumers turn to online shopping, the floral industry has also experienced an increase in internet flower sales. This trend comes with more concerns because the additional shipping and processing creates more waste and dependence on single-use plastics. Greenwashing terms like “locally crafted” add to consumer confusion, because they appear to indicate a domestically farmed product, when in fact these items may have been shipped or processed overseas.

Sustainability concerns continue in the floral industry with its dependence on single use plastics and floral foams. Floral foams raise some of the most shocking sustainability and public health concerns—not only are they based on a petroleum compound, but contain other dangerous additives such as formaldehyde and carbon black. These elements are carcinogenic, and prolonged exposure may increase the user’s risk of cancer. Florists and consumers that come into repeated contact with floral foam are at the highest risk of these possible side effects.

New research has also shown that the water-absorbing foam used by the floral industry is contributing to the world’s microplastic problem. The plastic compound foam, which breaks into tiny pieces, can be ingested by a range of freshwater and marine animals and affect their health. “For an industry that seeks to celebrate nature, we are actually adding to environmental problems when using this product,” Rita Feldmann, founder of the Sustainable Floristry Network  states. “Disposal issues have stemmed directly from a lack of user information about the product. For the past 60 years, florists all over the world have been pouring it down the sink or putting it in the soil. And we have no true idea what customers do with it.”

Many within the industry are making efforts to remove these products from their businesses, opting instead for more traditional and eco-sensitive techniques like chicken wire or twine. These local initiatives to improve sustainability practices within the industry are very promising, but the average consumer may not understand how to determine a sustainable option.

For floral-loving Chicagoans, there is no need to ditch the flowers. The last decade has seen new interest in domestic floral production with increased local growing efforts and greenhouse facilities beginning to offer more options for the Midwest. Sustainability certifications like Veriflora Sustainably Grown and the Rainforest Alliance also help consumers better identify eco-sensitive options. “In general, the industry is showing a trend towards sustainability practices and more transparency about source,” notes Fosbender. “Working directly with a florist or local farmer helps guarantee a more sustainable process.”

Sharing flowers with loved ones is still a wonderful way to celebrate a holiday or special event. Chicago residents can benefit from databases like SlowFlowers.com, which help connect consumers with florists and local farmers maintaining these improved green practices. Consumers can help decrease the carbon footprint associated with florals by considering regionally accessible flower varietals or living plants. Consumers should also avoid online ordering, as well as vendors using foam or excessive plastics in processing. Consumers should stay aware of floral trends that increase sustainability concerns such as bleached or chemically dyed flowers. It is time to stop smelling the roses. This Valentine’s Day, give the gift of sustainable flowers to loved ones.

Anna Marie Imbordino is an award-winning writer, publicist and environmentalist based in Chicago and Charleston, SC. Connect with her on social media by following @chibuzzmarketing.