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Why is it so hard to find a sustainable florist? How to buy flowers without hurting the planet

Photography By ALLEC GOMES, SARAH COUSENS, JULIA ZOLOTOVA
Published 05.11.21

Fresh flowers are a celebration of nature. But do they do more harm than we realise?

For those of us who love all things green, but aren’t lucky enough to live in a magical glade or charming pastoral farmhouse, bouquets are often as close as we can get to nature on a daily basis. They allow us to bring the outside world into our homes and serve as a reminder of how beautiful the planet can be.  

There’s just one cruel irony (killjoy alert): fresh cut flowers can be deceptively destructive.

Despite representing the best of the natural world, their cultivation, farming and transportation can wreak havoc on it. 

Are fresh flowers bad for the environment?

The short (complex) answer is it depends. Where and when you buy your flowers makes a huge difference on their environmental impact.  

When thinking about eco-friendly flowers, transport is really the largest issue. Our taste for aesthetically – rather than seasonally – driven options means that many of us are used to shopping for varieties that are either not grown in our local areas, or are imported when out of season.  

It’s almost impossible to quantify how many blooms are shipped globally each year. But you can get a sense of scale by taking a look at some of the largest markets. Annually, the US spends $1.83 billion on flowers. Colombia alone sends it more than four billion flowers a year.   

In 2018 the UK fresh flowers and ornamental plant market was estimated to be worth £1.3 billion. Around 90 per cent of those flowers were imported.

All that shipping doesn’t just mean piling product onto gas-guzzling, emissions-spewing cargo planes. There’s also the issue of how the delicate goods are delivered from the airport to your favourite florist.  

Flowers need to be kept cool at every stage of their long journey. That means they’re moved in special refrigerated trucks that on average use 25 per cent more fuel and produce more carbon emissions than their non-refrigerated counterparts.

SECRET GARDEN

How do you buy sustainable flowers?

The answer to that seems simple – buy local. Purchasing locally grown flowers does make a huge impact, but it’s not a total solution. There is still the issue of catering to our tastes.  

It doesn’t matter if your favourite gardenias were grown around the corner if you buy them in the middle of winter. That’s because the demand for a trans-seasonal supply means that growers often resort to using greenhouses. Once again, this can be incredibly energy intensive if they use artificial heat sources.   

Furthermore, farmers may need to depend on the use of added pesticides, chemicals and synthetic fertilisers to convince the confused plants to bloom out of season. Ironically, that means domestically grown flowers in cooler climates can have a carbon footprint over five times higher than those grown in equatorial countries. Although, those impacts can be reduced if growers are using renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.  

Ok, so let’s say you’ve found a flower farmer selling to your neighbourhood farmers’ market or local florist and have googled seasonal varieties – are you in the clear? Almost, but there’s also the issue of packaging to consider.  

While recent trends have seen florists move away from the use of toxic floral foam, many still wrap bouquets in swaths of plastic and plastic-backed paper. Not to mention those little water bottle stoppers they plug onto the end of the stems. All up, it’s a non-recyclable nightmare. 

What is a sustainable florist?

One simple way to sidestep all this homework is to find a nice sustainable florist to do the research for you. Chances are you’ve noticed a lot of people starting to boast about being sustainable, carbon-neutral or organic florists.   

But like so many industries that love throwing around the word “sustainable”, it can be tricky to know what that means. In theory it should refer to the fact that they are sourcing their organic flowers locally; avoiding plastic, pesticides and chemicals (including foam); utilising recycled products; and setting up compost schemes.  

But there are no set or regulated standards for sustainable florists. Honestly, in researching this article it was surprisingly difficult to find companies that not only could explain what they were doing to earn their self-appointed titles like “organic florist”, but also back it up with proof. 

FLOWERS

Questions to ask your local florist

Within such a murky market, it’s really worth asking a few questions before you hand over your cash. Here are some good conversation starters to kick off with.  

Are the flowers sourced locally? How far did they travel?

Ideally, you’d be buying locally from the farmer at a neighbourhood market. But if you’re going through a florist ask them about their suppliers. Be specific. Even stores that mostly stick to local suppliers will import expensive or holiday-themed varieties. Ask about their general practice and your specific purchase.  

Are the flowers seasonal?

A quick google will tell you if the plants in stock are also in season. If they’re not, they may have come from far away or been grown in an energy intensive environment.  

Were they sustainably and ethically grown?

That can mean a lot of things, but ask whether the florist has inquired about farm workers’ rights or whether chemicals are avoided during growing.  

Also pay attention to how they run the store. Is there a lot of plastic packaging used? Has floral foam been swapped out for alternatives such as moss or recycled chicken wire? Taking care to make improvements in day-to-day operations will tell you a lot about their wider values. 

How are they reducing waste?

Just as their attitude to plastic can signal deeper values, you can tell a lot by how people think about waste. For example, do you need to pre-order flowers or are arrangements made to order to reduce leftovers?  

Do they have a plan for unsold flowers? As we know, organic matter dumped in landfill is a major emissions contributor. Ideally florists would have alternative plans such as donating or composting leftover flowers and offcuts.  

Additionally, do they recycle old jars and vases, can you bring in your own vessel, and are they avoiding plastic by working with tissue, recyclable paper and string? 

DANIELLE BARNES

How the world’s best eco florists are making better choices

Thrive, Melbourne

Thrive could probably start a side business teaching other florists about sustainable practices. The owners have really thought of just about everything and get bonus marks for going out of their way to work their friends and neighbours into sustainability planning.  

Unsold flowers are redesigned into gifts for the community, dried to be used in event installations or composted into soil or fertiliser for local community gardens.  

A focus on compostable, biodegradable, recyclable and reusable packaging means little of their non-plant products ends up in the bin. Most is either repurposed or returned to suppliers. The small amount of plastic they do use is taken to a local soft plastic depot to be recycled. 

Stones Corner Flower Shop, Brisbane

Stones Corner Flower Shop is really setting the bar for sustainability in Australia. Not only does it source most of its products from the south-east Queensland and northern NSW region, it does a lot of work to educate its customers on the eco floristry industry at large.  

On top of responsible sourcing, it is also  

– avoiding floral foam
– using environmentally friendly wrapping materials
– delivering and storing flowers in recycled glass containers, reusable ceramics or fully biodegradable water-filled cups
– composting clippings, stems and offcuts
– carrying a range of plants and dry flowers as an “everlasting” and sustainable gift option. 

Bydeau, Hong Kong

One of the easiest ways to reduce waste is for florists to work to a pre-order system. That way they’re never purchasing more flowers than they need and don’t risk being left with a bunch of waste.  

That’s Bydeau’s approach, although it also gives local designers any leftover cuttings to repurpose into their artwork.  

All its bouquets are wrapped in recycled paper and biodegradable water bags, which can be composted at home. Although it also encourages customers to just bring in their own vases to save any packaging.  

Molly Oliver Flowers, New York City

Molly Oliver Flowers has done its research to ensure that its flowers are grown by flower farmers from within 200 miles of New York City. Once varieties arrive instore, they’re arranged with foam and synthetic-free design methods and stored in rented and locally sourced vessels.  

This commitment to organic materials means leftover studio and event waste can be composted at a local farm. For anything that can’t break down, it’s partnered with TerraCycle to take care of it. 

Farmers’ markets

Don’t happen to live near one of these great businesses? No stress, sourcing locally from farmers’ markets is a great alternative. That way you can speak to, and support, the growers directly. As they don’t rely on imports, their wares tend to already be seasonal and often cheaper.  

If they are packaging their blooms in plastic or other non-recyclable materials, don’t be shy to have a chat to them about it. Often they’ll be willing to organise low-waste packaging for you and the dialogue will hopefully inspire them to investigate more environmentally friendly options in the future. 

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