The true cost of fresh cut flowers, and what we can do to shop more sustainably

By Shefali Shah

In the lead up to Mother’s Day, UK consumers spent more than £1billion on fresh cut flowers in 2019. The scale and popularity of cut flowers has boomed in recent years with the UK market worth over £2billion (more than that of the UK music industry). But how much do we really now about where our flowers come from? And how they are produced?

fresh cut flower farm

The UK imports over 90% of its flowers, the majority coming from the Netherlands where auction houses have long since dominated the global market. Royal FloraHolland near Amsterdam, one of the world’s largest auction houses, imports and re-exports 40% of flowers from across the world.

With a global industry worth over US $55 billion, producers in countries from across Latin America to Eastern Africa are challenging the status quo, scaling up production – 365 days a year – to compete in the global flower market. Kenya produces 38% of the 250 million roses grown around the world for Valentine’s Day alone – primarily for European markets. The country’s flower industry accounts for 1% of the country’s GDP and is the second largest export after tea.

More than 100,000 are people directly employed in the industry, with a further 2 million indirectly, according to the Kenya Flower Council. At the Tambuzi flower farm, 8 million flowers are grown a year for export – often roses and carnations to meet European demand. Harvested flowers can reach a florist in London in as little as 48 hours.

But while access to cheap labour, hours of sunlight due to proximity to the equator and ranging altitudes provide the ideal conditions for production, the industry’s rapid growth has brought with it a variety of social, economic and environmental costs, particularly for its predominantly female workforce.

A female workforce

Women make up the majority of workers in Kenya’s flower farms (55% at Tambuzi). They tend to be low paid and work in poor conditions. Fluctuations in seasonal demand can see production double around Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, and regular exposure to chemicals poses significant health risks. Rights to maternity or childcare provision are little to none. Droughts as a result of worsening climate change threaten production, placing women in even more precarious situations.

Environmental costs

There are costs and benefits to growing flowers in Kenya. Long haul flights burn high amounts of fuel, yet flower farms in developing countries benefit from natural energy sources and use less when compared with European greenhouses. Research by the Fairtrade Foundation found that, taking air travel into account, roses grown in Kenya produced 5.5 times fewer greenhouse gases than those grown in the Netherlands. However, this does not take account of the use of chemicals use to keep flowers fresh while in transit. Lake Naivasha, Kenya, has seen increased pollution and the size of the lake halve.

fresh cut flower bouquet

Asking more questions

The flower industry is an important source of employment and economic growth for a developing country like Kenya. As Western demand shows no signs of slowing, there are things we can do to shop more ethically. Researchers from Coventry University suggest as consumers, we can start by asking florists more questions about where our flowers come from, and how they are sourced, to help us make more informed choices. This can signal to florists that we care about the ways in which flowers are produced and by whom.

Demand for Fairtrade flowers in the UK is growing, albeit slowly – Fairtrade accounts for just 2% of the UK’s total flower and plant market. Looking out for flowers that have recognised certification schemes such as Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and Veriflora can ensure that local farmers benefit from this premium.  For farmers in developing countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania to really see the benefits, consumer demand and sales needs to increase significantly in the UK and Europe.

Supermarkets often buy directly from growers and as a result flowers tend to be more clearly labelled. However, supermarkets may not choose to disclose this information and their influence over price and volume can place unfair pressure on farms. Flowers from the Farm promotes locally grown British flowers.

Florists can do more to promote sustainability and ethical flowers by understanding what certification schemes mean. This can include choosing growers that promote local community development or rights for women and helping to raise awareness amongst the public.

At home, avoid plastics by asking for reusable or recycled packaging or taking your own vase to florists. Look after your flowers by keeping them away from direct heat and sunlight and recycle them as green waste to help offset their carbon footprint.

Find out more about certification schemes and how to shop more sustainably.  

Shefali is Vice-Chair at Development in Action.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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