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Are Roses the Most Sustainable Flower to Gift on Valentine’s Day?

Roses are beautiful, but there’s much more to these Valentine’s Day symbols than what meets the eye.

Written by
Giulia Lallas
January 26, 2022

Roses are red, Valentine’s Day is coming up ahead. As reported by a 2018 statistic from the Society of American Florists, about 250 million roses are produced each year for Valentine’s Day.

This staggering statistic has a multitude of layers surrounding it, many of which we will get into. But why is Valentine’s Day so often associated with the beautiful red flower? And, most importantly, what's the environmental impact of roses?

The History of Roses

The language of flowers dates back to Napoleonic France and Victorian England. Back in Victorian England, women studied different types of flowers. They attributed a distinct meaning to each and used them as communicative methods. Then, the flower language was given a Turkish spin.

In fact, the flowery language began blooming after Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote about it in a series of letters. This popularized the concept, causing it to catch the attention of writers like de Latour. De Latour published the flower language dictionary in 1819 in France. It was then translated to English. Despite all of this, it was later discovered in The Language of Flowers: A History that Montagu’s romanticized writings were inaccurate.   

Thus, the flower language dictionary spread like wildfire (thankfully, not literally). And in this book was de Latour’s definition of a rose: love. Roses then went on to symbolize happiness for many, and the definition stuck. This caused the number of roses produced in the 19th century to skyrocket. It also led to the creation of many different rose breeds.

Ultimately, the rose that became the face of the rose population was one called the American Beauty, the current D.C. state flower. It's also the official flower of the United States. The striking beauty and color of this flower is hard to deny. But take those two features and combine them with one cup of photogenic grace and ¼ cup of Instagram-worthiness, and you have the American Beauty.

A Rose’s Journey—and Environmental Impact

Picture this: The sun's out, and it's shining directly onto your leaves. You decide to relax and stretch out your petals. That is, until you realize you’re tightly surrounded by a bunch of slightly annoying family members of your same rose species. Everyone is squishing everyone’s thorns until they get picked. 

Rose Emissions 101

There are a bunch of roses (get it?) produced for February 14th. Interestingly, most of the ones Americans give each other are produced on a farm near Bogota, Columbia where employees work at lightning speed.

So what happens when you get picked? Well, you’re transported to a below 40℉ fridge and put in a box with cold air blowing into it. Your box gets stacked with others and wrapped in plastic. You're then presented with a one-way plane ticket to the U.S., or another country, depending on your color.

Rose Emissions from U.S. Imports

The employees mark different bunches of what they call “Freedom Roses” with different colors to indicate their final destination. So there you are. Surrounded by roughly 1.1 million of your fellow freezing rose comrades in a box on a plane. What’s more is that, according to the Washington Post, in “the three weeks leading up to February 14, 30 cargo jets make the [three-hour] trip from Colombia to Miami each day.”

From there, you'll get inspected by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. Then you're placed on a refrigerated truck (one out of the 200 trucks that go out with roses each day). You're taken to a warehouse to be repackaged, assembled, and yes, shipped again. This time, somewhere else in the country. But at least you can settle into a nice little local shop with a good owner to take care of you when you land, right? Wrong.

The florists have been left behind. And after about 3 to 4 days, you’ll have your stem trimmed and will wind up at Walmart or another large chain store. The reasoning behind this deal is money. Giants like Walmart opt to buy huge amounts of roses at cheap prices in a bouquet. 

Given all of this traveling, there should be a system in place to control the emissions produced from roses, right? Unfortunately, not in the slightest. With the 2012 U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, import fees on these flowers were eliminated, so any hopes of reducing greenhouse gas emissions with the imports were shadowed. That leaves us with emissions on emissions. 

Working—and Wilting Away—in the Flower Industry

On top of these uncontrolled emissions and endless plastic packaging are terrible working conditions. This is because workers have to consistently keep up with the demand for quick, cheap roses, leading to them working overtime. These long hours unfortunately go hand-in-hand with sexual assaults faced by female workers in the Columbian flower industry.

There was a 1996 initiative in Columbia aimed to eliminate child labor and the use of dangerous chemicals that were affecting the workers’ health. Sadly, since many flower firms in Columbia are self-regulated with little government intervention, both of the terms in this initiative—along with injury prevention—can fall short of reality.

Plus, many people have already fallen victim to this irreversible health damage. And these conditions only get worse during times of the year when roses are in high demand, like Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. So it’s up to us as consumers to make a difference. 

Where Else Are U.S. Roses Produced?

In Ecuador—another major flower-producing country—workers are facing similar child labor and sexual assault issues on their flower farms. According to The Atlantic, during the busy season, Ecuador has an unfortunate history of hiring child workers. These child workers, among others, work up to 20 hours a day. 

Furthermore, in Ecuador, the International Rights Forum surveyed multiple women working on these farms in 2005. They found that 55% of the interviewees had been “subject to sexual harassment at work, and 19% had been forced to have sex with a supervisor or coworker.” Pregnancy is also a touchy subject for female workers in the flower industry, often resulting in them getting fired.

Ecuador's large part in the flower market has recently begun to change, however, following the 2012 U.S.-Columbia deal that raised Ecuadorian flower prices and lowered Columbian prices. Columbia has since had a better reputation in reducing these issues, but it is unclear by how much.

Flower Certifications to Look For 

First and foremost, when looking to purchase flowers this Valentine’s Day, shop local and buy flowers that are in season if you can. In essence, the most sustainable flowers are the ones near you.

If you're on the hunt for some last-minute flowers and don't have time to research local flower shops near you, there are a few certifications you can look for on the flower packaging. 

One of these is the Fair Trade stamp. Buying Fair Trade can make a huge difference in a worker’s life, just like it did for Joana Quitiaquez. After Fair Trade was implemented in Joana's workplace, she was finally given access to medical services and a higher pay. Other certifications to look for include VeriFlora and Rainforest Alliance

You can also skip cut flowers and go for cut flower alternatives that are better for the planet. This includes gifting potted houseplants, flower seeds, and propagated plants. They last longer and require fewer resources.

Concluding Thoughts

All in all, we just covered a lot of serious stuff. So let it all sink in as you think about consciously shopping for flowers this Valentine’s Day.

If you’re interested in other Valentine’s Day gift ideas besides flowers or plants, we've got you. Check out our sustainable Valentine’s Day gift guide here.