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19 July 2021

How to buy sustainable flowers

They are a quintessential gift for many occasions – but how green really are cut flowers, and is there a better alternative?
KL
Karen Lawrence

They might look natural, but fresh-cut bouquets are not always as green as they might seem. Most are intensively farmed and imported from abroad, giving them a hefty carbon footprint.

Many are grown under artificial light in energy-hungry Dutch hothouses, or air-freighted from Kenya in chilled containers. 

If a loved one is expecting a bouquet – or you’re hoping for some blooms yourself – here’s our guide to help you enjoy your favourite flowers more sustainably.

Related: In March 2021, we looked into the best flower delivery services for Mother's Day 2021, with a focus on sustainable brands and those that use Fairtrade or similar schemes.

Are cut flowers really unsustainable?

Just like food, flowers are an agricultural product often grown on a large scale. They present a wide range of sustainability issues, which can depend on how and where they are grown, how they are packaged and transported, and the treatment of the workers who grow, pick, and pack them.

The British-grown cut flower industry is worth more than £120m a year, but this makes up just 14% of all the cut flowers bought in the UK – down from around 45% 30 years ago. 

The majority of the £865m-worth of stems sold by florists and supermarkets each year are imported. 70% of those come from the Netherlands, where commercial flowers are grown mainly in energy-intensive heated greenhouses, resulting in a high carbon footprint. 

Further afield, 6% come from Kenya, while 4% are from Colombia. The carbon cost of flying flowers around the world is high but, as with food products, greater distance travelled does not necessarily mean increased emissions.

Check the country of origin

Flowers are big business for countries like Kenya, Colombia, Vietnam and Ecuador, thanks to their ideal growing conditions with warm weather and long hours of sunlight all year round. The country of origin will affect the carbon footprint of your stems, but it's a complicated equation. 

It takes far less energy to grow flowers in these regions than in artificially lit and heated greenhouses in colder climates, but they are flown long distances to reach customers in the UK. So, which produces more carbon emissions?

A 2018 Lancaster University study compared the carbon emissions associated with the cultivation and transportation of seven types of cut flowers sourced from the UK, Kenya and the Netherlands and grown under different conditions (outdoor or greenhouse). The emissions per stem were found to be highest for Dutch lilies, followed by Kenyan gypsophila, Dutch roses, and Kenyan roses. 

Emissions were significantly lower for lilies, snapdragons and alstroemerias produced by flower growers in the UK. 

The study found that an imported mixed bouquet produced ten times more emissions than a British-grown mixed bouquet.

Pesticides and pollution

Although carbon emissions are a big issue, the flower industry is also one of the biggest global users of pesticides, and commercial growers can have negative impacts on the environment in countries such as Kenya.

Many of the most toxic chemicals are banned in some parts of the world, but are still commonly used in other countries where there is relatively little regulation of pesticides used in flower growing.

Pesticide residues pose a health risk to workers who grow, pick, and pack the flowers, and to florists who handle them frequently. In Belgium, the University of Liege found more than 100 different chemical residues  in sample bouquets, including insecticides and fungicides that can have hazardous chronic effects.

Besides harming workers’ health, pesticide residues pollute both the soil and groundwater, and can severely affect local ecosystems and biodiversity.

Labels to look for on imported flowers

You can still enjoy imported blooms while helping to protect the environment and improve the livelihoods of workers who depend on the flower sector. Look out for these labels on bunches grown by certified farms.
  • Florverde Sustainable Flowers (FSF) is an independent social and environmental standard for the flower sector. The FSF standard covers issues including working conditions, occupational health, environmental best practices, and protection of biodiversity. In 2019, 53% of Colombian flower exports were Florverde certified.
  • Fairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world. Fairtrade-certified farms receive a premium of 10% for every stem sold, which allows workers to invest in healthcare, education and other social benefits. It currently works with flower farmers in Kenya, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Ecuador, Uganda and Tanzania.

Where to buy seasonal British flowers for Mother’s Day

Even this early in the year, a wide range of UK-grown flowers are available for Mother’s Day. Many early season flowers come from Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, thanks to their mild climate.

The recent trend for looser, country-garden style floristry has boosted demand for homegrown flowers, and smaller flower farms have started springing up all around the country. 

Flowers grown by a local farmer will be freshly picked and thus have a longer vase life. They also help the country’s biodiversity by providing food and habitat for butterflies, bugs and bees. 

Flowers from the Farm has a handy map of growers and florists that use seasonal, British-grown flowers, or search online for the hashtag #grownnotflown.

Although there is no legal requirement to label the origin of cut flowers, you can find British blooms in supermarkets and online retailers too. Just look for the Union Jack sticker or ‘Grown in the UK’ on the label.

Related: Read our reviews of the best flower delivery services for Mother's Day 2021, which includes flowers from Great British Florist and Cornish Blooms.

Sustainable supermarket flowers

Half of all cut flowers in the UK are bought in supermarkets. If you are planning to pick up a bouquet with the weekly shop, look for British-grown bunches or Fairtrade-labelled flowers such as roses, lilies, eryngiums, calla lilies, sunflowers, and alstroemerias.  

Most large supermarkets, including Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Lidl, M&S, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s, sell a selection of Fairtrade flowers, while Waitrose has its own Foundation, which funds projects to improve the lives of the people who grow, pick and pack flowers in Kenya.

Aldi and Co-op have also signed the National Farmers Union’s Plants and Flowers Pledge, a 12-point charter aiming to increase the proportion of British plants and flowers on sale, and Tesco told us they sell a wide range of British seasonal flowers. 

Many supermarket bunches are still wrapped in non-recyclable cellophane, but some companies have started using biodegradable alternatives instead. 

Better still, look for flowers sold without packaging or with a paper wrapper, and with natural raffia or twine rather than synthetic rubber bands.

Can’t find sustainable flowers? Try something different

  • For the freshest possible arrangement, with zero delivery miles, pick some stems from your own garden or allotment. If it’s too early for flowers, a few stems from a flowering tree or shrub, paired with some foliage, can be effective.
  • Houseplants are more popular than ever and are more sustainable than flowers that will be thrown away after a week or two. Most online florists and larger supermarkets now offer a selection of gift-worthy houseplants.
  • A larger potted perennial or shrub can be planted out in the garden and, with a little care, your gift will continue to grow and be appreciated for years to come.

To learn how to successfully grow your own flowers, head to our grow-your-own advice guides.