Why it could be better to buy flowers from Kenya this Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is a good excuse to buy your mum flowers to show your love and appreciation. But flowers, like anything else cultivated, can have harmful environmental and social impacts. Nigel’s Eco Store looks at greener ways to buy blooms.

Flowers for Mother's Day, March 30th
Flowers for Mother’s Day

Nearly 80% of the cut flowers we buy in the UK are imported from The Netherlands, Colombia and Kenya. Twenty years ago half of flowers sold here were from the UK; now it’s just 10%. It’s big business – as a nation, we spend £2.2bn on cut flowers every year.

In Africa, flowers grow naturally because of the climate but in Holland they are grown in heated greenhouses, which need energy to maintain the temperature.

In Holland, flowers are grown in heated greenhouses
Flowers are grown in huge greenhouses in the Netherlands

The environmental impacts of cut flowers
Carbon emissions: In his comprehensive book, How Bad are Bananas?, Mike Berners-Lee calculates the amount of greenhouse gases (CO2e) released in the growing and transportation of a single red rose.

Surprisingly perhaps, this is 350g CO2e for a rose grown in Kenya and flown by air to the UK and 2.1kg CO2e for one grown in a heated greenhouse in The Netherlands.

The Kenyan rose is the better environmental option, but cut flowers are “one of the most carbon unfriendly ways of getting rid of your cash”, Berners-Lee concludes.

Who said romance was dead!

The best solution, though impractical and season dependent, is to grow a rose in your garden: as long as you only use organic fertiliser, no greenhouse gases are released.

Water use
A single rose requires about 10 litres of water to grow in Kenya; the classic dozen roses, therefore, needs 120 litres. This in a country that the UN classifies as water-stressed ie it uses more than it naturally replenishes. Lake Naivasha, around which many of the Kenyan flower-growing operations are situated, has become polluted over the years, harming traditional fishing and animal husbandry practices, though there are ongoing initiatives to improve the situation.

flower farm in Lake Naivasha
Flower farm by Lake Naivasha

Because we don’t eat flowers, there is not so much concern about what pesticides are used to help them grow. But that ignores the harmful effects on the surrounding environment, water sources and the workers themselves.

According to a Guardian report, 12 different pesticides are used in flower growing in Columbia, while in Ethiopia some producers use toxic pesticides banned in industrialised nations.

The social impacts of cut flowers
Employment: You’d think the simple solution then would just be to buy homegrown flowers, but the cut flowers industry provides thousands of people with work and an income, often in economies where jobs are hard to come by. If you don’t buy imported cut flowers these workers might not be able to feed themselves or send their kids to school.

According to the Ethical Trading Initiative, the Kenyan cut flower industry provides income for up to two million people; Colombia (the largest flower exporter in the world after Holland) supports about 800,000 people.

That said, often labour conditions aren’t great. The ETI lists a range of problems including low wages, a lack of protection for workers from repetitive strain injuries and exposure to toxic pesticides.

Fifteen-hour shifts without a break are common around annual peaks in demand such as Valentine’s Day and Mothers’ Day. Many of the workers are female, and bullying, sexual harassment, inadequate maternity cover and allowances for childcare are major problems.

Women picking flowers
Women picking flowers in Africa

The ETI notes that conditions are slowly improving but it’s clear there is a lot more that needs to be done.

What you can do about it
All these problems above apply in the most part to the other major flower exporters including Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Ethiopia, which means as a flower buyer you are faced with a dilemma.

Is it better to buy homegrown flowers with less environmental impacts and better workers rights, or buy imported flowers in the knowledge that you’re contributing to climate change and environmental damage but are supporting fragile local economies and the livelihoods of thousands of local people?

There isn’t a perfect course of action that has no negative impacts but here are some different ways you can buy flowers:

  • If you buy imported flowers, buy Fairtrade ones. Studies have shown these have a lower carbon footprint and also offer better conditions to workers.
  • Buy from Flowersfromthefarm.co.uk, which is a network of farmers, smallholders and gardeners who sell locally grown cut flowers from the UK.
  • Buy from an eco florist: they work with local growers and avoid floral foam – the spongy stuff used to stick flowers in, which is non-biodegradable and petroleum-based.
  • Try to buy seasonal flowers when you can. That does restrict you somewhat to spring and summer blooms but there are still some wonderful native varieties such as violets, asters, scabious, dahlias and sunflowers.
  • Buy a flowering plant instead. It will last a lot longer and should produce flowers over its lifetime.
  • Grow your own.
  • Ask your florist about Fairtrade flowers. If they don’t sell any, ask why not? Consumer pressure is powerful and if enough customers show interest in the environmental and social impacts of flowers, sellers will have to take notice.

As with many buying decisions these days, there’s an ethical/environmental labyrinth to negotiate.

There’s no simple answer, but buying flowers that minimise environmental damage and maximise social welfare have got to be better than ones that don’t.

The upside is mum is going to love her flowers a whole lot more when she knows that instead of buying them on the way home at the local garage as you usually do, this year you’ve put a lot of thought and effort into your final decision.

To carbon offset, or not?

Christmas is fast approaching and I am looking back at 2009, at whether I can be more planet friendly, reduce my carbon footprint and be more sustainable in my living. This year I’ve been pretty good: shopping locally, cutting back on things like meat, walking more, and switching off as much as possible at home and at work.

The odd holiday splurge is the one thing that leaves a nasty blot on my carbon copy book and I’ve been wondering what to do about that. Bar cycling around the UK or to Europe, which I’m not really game for, and taking an eco holiday of course, I’ve thought about offsetting all my travel emissions. However I’ve been a bit sceptical generally about Carbon Trading and Offsetting and whether it makes a real difference.

A friend recommended The Koru Foundation. They work with communities in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific to improve quality of life by installing renewable energy systems for homes and local services. Micro renewables means people can cook food, pump clean water, power homes, schools and health centres and run small businesses in a sustainable way. Not only this but the installations provide power for basic facilities that they would not otherwise have.

For anyone looking to Carbon Offset, apply for their Carbon Compensation Scheme – once you’ve worked out how much carbon you want to compensate for, you invest in poverty reduction projects in countries vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The charge per tonne is based on a carbon shadow price and 100% of the money goes directly to the projects, things like a micro hydro power station in Northern Peru and wind and solar systems in Nicaragua.

I’m definitely going to give it a closer look. See the Koru Foundation to Carbon Compensate website for more information on carbon compensation as part of an emissions reduction plan.

Video conferencing: Green Business Travel


Continuing on the green travel theme, if you travel for business to meet clients and suppliers, you could save money and cut carbon emissions by video conferencing instead.

Video conferencing is a way to hold meetings with clients or suppliers all over the world – in real time – without stepping on a plane, but using high quality video screens instead.

Paul Dickinson of the Carbon Disclosure Project gave me a demo a while ago. It was pretty impressive. So we’ve taken the initiative and teamed up with Europe’s largest video conference public room provider, so that you can access high quality video conferencing straight away without buying any equipment. You hire it by the hour instead. Top video conferencing destinations include London, New York, Johannesburg, Singapore and Dubai.

Rates start from £80 per hour.

Click here for more information

Food miles furore

The Soil Association have been toying with the idea of removing organic certification from food flown in from countries like Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia on the grounds that freighting food overseas damages the environment. Airfreighted food has too high a carbon foorprint, runs the argument.

True, it’s important to consider food miles when you’re buying your groceries. But I don’t think the Soil Association’s plan makes any sense… worse, it’ll wreak havoc.

1. It’s unfair. Having persuaded African farmers to meet organic standards, they’re now moving the goalposts. How much hardship would that cause?

2. If you want to decrease the world’s carbon footprint you have to look at global solutions, not just local ones. Population growth is a factor of poverty; the only way we’re going to stabalise the world’s population is by leveling the playing fields and allowing Kenyan farmers like Charles Kimani, featured in this Guardian article, to make a living, not by continuing to shut him out of global fair trade.

3. As Charles Kimani asks, “Who emits more greenhouse gasses? A Kenyan or a Briton?” African farmers already have to cope with European and American food tariffs without the Soil Association tipping the odds even further against them. And yet it’s African farmers who are facing the brunt of warming as weather paterns change. How fair is that?

4. Mixing the air miles issue with the organic issue makes things more confusing not less. The Soil Association provide a great service certifying food. I know when I eat something labelled organic that it should be grown under safe, chemical-free conditions. That’s what I want them to do for me. I’m all for air mile labelling too to let me make an informed decision on whether I choose to buy Kenyan beans or not, but I don’t want the Soil Association making that decision for me.


Sorry. Gets off high horse.

Feel free to tell me why I’ve got this wrong.

Photo of a farmer from Togo kindly supplied by Vredeseilanden, a Belgian NGO that works developing small-scale sustainable agriculture projects in Africa.

Rock music goes green?

I think you have to admire the musicians who are putting their names to Live Earth, music’s global Gore-fest. It’s not so much the committment to playing at a humungously huge world-wide gig. A twenty-minute set is hardly going to kill them. It’s the fact that by appearing there they’re opening themselves up – for the rest of their careers – to charges of hypocrisy.

Rock music is hardly the most eco-friendly genre. There isn’t much that’s green about private jets, limos and hotel-rooms, or more importantly about a genre that persuades thousands of people to travel hundreds of miles to come and see you play. Adam Gardner, guitarist in a band called Gutser, set up a non-profit organisation called Reverb with his ecologist wife Lauren Sullivan. Reverb tries to help bands who want to be greener work their way through the maze of issues around carbon offsetting, recycling and low-emission transport.

Everywhere you look there’s waste. Just one example Adam points to: after any show there is a huge pile of batteries – barely used – which are just thrown away. They’re used to power microphones, FX pedals, tuners. They might have only been used for an hour, but they’re discarded after each show. Adam Gardner reckons a band routinely gets through about fifty a night.

Music equipment designers have never had to consider green issues like that before – but they’re going to have to now. Because now they’ve nailed their colours to the mast, rock musicians are going to be duty-bound to live up to a new set of standards and start refusing to accept such waste… thinking about whether they really do need to fly a hairdresser out with them, or to keep that limousine idling outside the venue. They’re going to have to figure out how to exist without that pile of half-used batteries.

I wonder if they’ve all thought that through or not…

Photo by MReece.

Another green world

Gorilla safari in Rwanda

I was at a local get-together for people involved in ethical businesses the other night and I met Justin Francis there – one of the co-founders of Responsible Travel. He spent an hour telling me how they do business there, which was a) very impressive, and b) really, really useful. The Ecostore is burgeoning, but it’s a very competitive world out there.

As for foreign parts, ethical or not, I’ve taken a pledge to avoid air travel wherever possible. But, like the thorny question of food miles, it’s not simple issue. If we cut out ethical tourism, are we wrecking a chance to create sustainable communities in vulnerable parts of the world like Rwanda where tourism is about the only thing that will safe the Virunga National Park? Justin thinks so.