SFGate.com -- Valentine's Day is next week, and because I want to show my wife how much I love her, I've been thinking a lot about flowers.
I'm not the only one. This year, Americans will spend $20 billion on flowers and plants, with the bulk of cut flowers sold between Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. The 180 million roses sold for Valentine's Day account for a third of the yearly total. It's a huge industry, on a par with something as ubiquitous as coffee.
Yet compared to just about everything else in the supermarket, the cut flower industry lags behind in eco-friendliness. While food has been undergoing an organic revolution that is now solidly mainstream, and people are demanding -- and getting -- sustainable and socially responsible choices in many of life's finer things, including wines, chocolate and diamonds, flowers aren't there yet.
"The problem is that commercially grown fresh-cut flowers are produced with an extensive artillery of toxic fertilizers, insecticides and fungicides," says Gerald Prolman, founder of Organic Bouquet, the first and only national online retailer of organic flowers.
"The government does not inspect flowers for pesticide residues," he continues, "but at the same time, regulations require that flowers arrive at our borders pest free. So trade laws encourage the use of strong chemicals."
And that causes problems, and not just for fragile mountain ecosystems in South America. In countries like Colombia and Ecuador, which together produce the majority of cut flowers you'll see in the United States, workers are affected as well.
"Commercial flower production is more similar to industry than to agriculture," says Nora Ferm, director of the Fairness in Flowers campaign at the International Labor Rights Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for the rights of workers in developing countries.
"Flower plantations are like sweatshops," continues Ferm, who is based in Ecuador and visits plantations regularly. "The flowers are grown in greenhouses, which makes the use of pesticides especially dangerous to the workers. The pesticides stay inside the greenhouse instead of being dispersed into the air."
According to the ILRF, one in five of the pesticides used on flowers in Colombia is banned for use in the United States. Workers can be poisoned just by doing their jobs or, even more acutely, through lax safety standards.
"In November 2003, there was a chemical spill at a plantation called Flores Aposentos in Colombia," says Ferm by way of example. "More than 300 workers started showing signs of intoxication, such as strong headaches, nausea, swelling, rashes, diarrhea, and sores inside and around the mouth. For several weeks, the company refused to provide clear information about what the chemical had been and what had led to the spill."
It's enough to put you off your bouquet. But it would be a mistake to dismiss flowers as something to be avoided altogether. Beauty isn't frivolous: A sustainable world is a beautiful world, and flowers -- the very symbol of natural beauty -- are a part of it.
That puts people like me in a quandary.
"Because flowers are an aesthetic product, they really do have to look perfect," says Mary Lois Hare, owner of Loop Group, a San Francisco design studio that specializes in wedding flowers.
Hare has to make the decision about what kind of flowers to buy all the time -- she buys thousands every year. "A lot of the public doesn't like thinking about certain things," she says. "The same people who buy organic food, thinking that it's healthier, aren't realizing that these pesticides are doing damage on a global level and that the workers are so poor that they don't have any other choice."
But Prolman, of Organic Bouquet, is betting that once people know what is going on, they will shop for flowers differently. "Flowers are really simple, and there's an assumption that flowers are grown naturally -- people don't realize the extent of the chemical use. But once consumers know that there's an alternative, those people with a good conscience prefer the environmental choice."
Prolman, who owned an organic food importing company in the 1990s and saw that industry mature from fringe to mainstream -- his company was bought by Dole in 1994 -- is banking on the same thing happening in flowers. In fact, he wants to be the person to make it happen.
"Organic flowers are important because they're safe for the environment," he says, "and the notion of organic floral production encourages healthy stewardship of the Earth. That's at the heart of what we're doing."
"But when I started this company in 2001," he continues, "I began with the notion that our flowers need to be competitively priced to make this really work. And they are. And we have the same or better quality. But we have a major of point of differentiation, in that our flowers are organic."
Still, Prolman acknowledges that flowers lag far behind food in organic consciousness. "There's only one organic rose producer in the world right now -- Rio Bamba, in Ecuador," he says. This is the source for the more than 120 thousand roses Organic Bouquet expects to ship from its Miami fulfillment center for Valentine's Day this year. (The company's headquarters is in Marin.)
"We would love a California supplier," he continues, "since our first priority is local flowers, but Ecuador has the advantage at this time of year [because roses are in season there now]."
Organic Bouquet has developed a regionally diverse network of flower growers, starting with local sources like California and Oregon and extending to Ecuador, Colombia, Holland and Israel. Prolman now has some new projects in Mexico and is looking at Kenya and Ethiopia.
Although his company has been growing at more than 50 percent per year, Prolman's goal of creating a $100 million enterprise is audacious -- it represents a 10th of the $1 billion of flowers sold online last year.
But one company does not make an entire sustainable industry. With limited supply, individual florists like Hare have a tough time getting sustainable flowers, and they're not likely to buy them online.
"When I'm buying flowers for a wedding," says Hare, "I have to see them before I buy them. I can't be laying down a bunch of money for hundreds of roses if I haven't selected, each one myself."
But Prolman sees it as his mission to spread sustainability throughout the flower industry, and he says the work he's doing with Organic Bouquet is helping growers make the change, which should improve supply for everybody.
"There's a reason why they use chemicals to grow flowers," says Prolman. "The growers have to combat pests and fungus and all sorts of pressures that affect their crops, so going organic is not an easy decision for a grower to make. But it can be done. Our growers have proven that, and customers are really glad to get the products."
To help spread his mission, Prolman has teamed up with Scientific Certification Systems, a third-party certifier of environmental claims, to create the Veriflora certification label. Designed to point growers toward sustainability by reducing chemical use, the Veriflora certification is a stepping-stone on the way to organic.
"It's a new standard for the fresh-cut flower trade," says Prolman. "It will support growers in the process while they transition their farms to organic. And at the same time, it shows consumers there are stringent controls about social and ecological practices."
The label is just entering the marketplace now. "It will be everywhere by Mother's Day," says Prolman. "I believe that it will become the standard for the fresh flower industry."
Similar certifications, including organic, have been on the European market for more than a decade, and Ferm says she's seen the difference they make on farms in South America. "It's clear that conditions at certified plantations are better," she says.
But Ferm adds that responsible chemical use is just one element of improving the lives of flower plantation workers. "Organic certification does not mean that labor laws and standards were complied with at that plantation," she points out.
Besides a list of abuses including irregular payment, forced overtime and sexual harassment, Ferm says that growers often force women workers to take pregnancy tests, and to avoid government-mandated maternity leave, fire workers they find are pregnant. So much for Mother's Day.
Veriflora certification requires growers to adhere to critical human rights measures, affirm the right to collective bargaining, undertake efforts to limit pesticide exposure and prohibit child labor. (According to the ILRF, up to a fifth of the flower workers in Ecuador are children.)
But until the label is widespread, people like me who just want a bunch of roses to give on Valentine's Day have limited sustainable flower options.
Ferm says organic is a good start. "It means that the workers who harvested your flowers were not exposed to toxic chemicals like most flower workers are."
When she can, Hare takes a different approach. "The best I can do for now," she says, "is to get flowers from local growers who I know personally. But it's tough because there's not a lot of local flowers in February. Hydrangeas are local now, but roses aren't. Ask your florist. That's the first step."
Prolman says that asking is the key to changing the industry. "If people ask, growers will provide," he says. "Growers are the most resourceful people I've ever met, and to the extent that the market demands sustainable practice, growers are going to respond."
"Consumers can accelerate the movement by asking their florists or retail stores to carry organic flowers," he goes on. "Write little notes when you go into the stores. Management reads them, and they'll respond."
But where does that leave people like me on Valentine's Day, when I suddenly remember I need to demonstrate the depth of my love but it's far too late to order anything online? Is there a sustainable option for the disorganized?
"Get them a potted plant -- that's the best solution," says Hare. "They're not shipped too far and the pesticides have to be at least approved in the U.S. And they last longer ."
And later this year, get your valentine a big, beautiful bouquet of locally grown organic flowers for Labor Day -- that's when Northern California's flower bounty is really peaking. Plus, you've got more lead time.
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