The Story Behind the Bouquet

roseThis Valentine’s Day, 110 million roses will be bought in the US and 21 million in the UK. The majority of these will be air freighted in from abroad, from South America for the North American market, and sub-Saharan Africa for the European market. With the myriad of climate change and development do’s and don’ts, is buying roses from developing countries ethically sound?

Ten thousand tonnes of roses sold in Britain tomorrow will have been imported from Kenya. According to the UK Flowers & Plants Association, besides Kenya, other countries that the UK imports roses from are Canary Islands, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, India, Israel, South Africa and Venezuela. In the US, Colombia and Ecuador account for roughly 90% of roses sold, while Mexico, Costa Rica and Chile are other budding flower producing nations. Of these, the majority are developing countries, which may depend on exports for income but also have their own country demands and issues to deal with.

There is evident concern over the carbon emitted by aircraft carrying flowers to the US and UK everyday, and the issue of diverting land use away from growing much needed food. The Guardian reports today that consumer appetite for cut-price Kenyan roses is “bleeding the country dry” by draining the valuable water supply.

However, while a possible solution could be to only buy flowers from local suppliers, this doesn’t take into account the importance of the flower industry for the producers themselves.

Kenya’s flower industry accounts for almost 10% of export earnings and is an important economic industry for the country’s development. Roses alone make up 74% of Kenya’s flower exports and over 50,000 people are employed in growing flowers and another million through production services. With more than half of Kenya’s population of 37 million living in poverty, the flower industry plays an important role in providing employment and alleviating poverty. Boycotting this service would be a massive blow for Kenyan farmers, and to their families and communities. In 2008, after the post-election violence in Kenya, the UK Department for International Development stated “it is more important than ever to buy flowers from Kenya, with jobs and livelihoods threatened by the current crisis.” Purchasing flowers from developing countries can help contribute to poverty reduction and improve people’s livelihoods.

However, the industry has further complexities. War on Want report that the flower industry and large supermarkets exploit overseas workers and job security is extremely poor. In their report “The cost of cut flowers to British supermarkets” they cite the example of Kenya where workers at a smallholding that exports their flowers through larger farms receive as little as £23 a month or less than 10p an hour.

Helping to incorporate ethical trading that is fair for producers, several UK supermarkets are now offering Fairtrade roses. Fairtrade certification allows workers to earn decent wages in good standard working conditions, addressing the management issues while helping to boost the flower industry in Kenya and improve community livelihoods.