Few things feel as wonderful as treating yourself or others to a gorgeous bouquet of flowers. Yet for all the joy they bring us, the flower trade – which is estimated to be worth more than US$100-billion globally a year – has a miserable ethical and environmental track record.
In North America, approximately 80 per cent of all cut flowers are imported from countries such as Kenya, Ecuador and Colombia. The carbon dioxide emissions from planes and refrigerated trucks to get them here are staggering. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency crunched the numbers for a three-week period leading up to Valentine’s Day and estimated flower delivery emitted 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Equally sobering, the flower industry is also one of the biggest consumers of pesticides in the world. The people most affected, of course, are the workers – mostly women – who put in long hours, in scorching heat, for very little pay.
In other words, as beautiful as flowers are, they come to us at an extremely high price.
“Most of us haven’t got a clue,” says Becky Feasby, a Calgary grower and owner of Prairie Girl Flowers. “I had worked in the industry for 20 years – in landscape design and as a horticultural therapist at the Alberta Children’s Hospital – and when I found out [the flowers] were all imported it just blew me away. I felt so stupid.
“At that point, I realized that the flower industry – as we know it – was unsustainable so I decided to grow my own, make sure everything I used was recyclable, and do my part to enact change.”
Feasby is one of the growing number of eco-conscious petal pushers who have joined the “slow flower” movement, an initiative – akin to the slow food movement – that encourages people to buy in-season flowers from small growers in their area.
“Floristry is big business worldwide and it’s hard to get people to rethink their ways,” says Natasa Kajganic, a member of the team behind Canadian Flowers Week, a week-long celebration of all things home-grown. “But in the last couple of years we’ve made progress. People are realizing there is a tremendous amount of waste in our industry and buying local is a healthier option for all of us.”
Last year, organizers of the first annual Canadian Flowers Week came up with innovative ways to grab peoples’ attention, wowing them with blooms in unexpected places.
One group decorated the entry of Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel with a lavish spray of hydrangea, gladiolas, roses and more. On Salt Spring Island in B.C., environmental artist Ingrid Koivukangas created a giant sunflower spiral on her 10-acre flower farm and in Nelson, B.C., two women transformed an alleyway into a floral/foraged retreat.
“We put a sign on Main Street and told people there was a surprise for them just a few metres away,” says Sarah Kistner, owner of Stone Meadow Gardens who created the elaborate installation called Field, Farm and Forest: A Celebration of the Canadian Landscape, with florist Kyla Jakovickas of Bellaflora Floral Design in Nelson, B.C.
Kistner used everything from blackberries, broom corn, wheat, amaranth, dahlias, grasses and chestnut pods in the installation. “Most of them don’t realize the variety of flowers that we can grow here. They see things on Pinterest and assume that’s what they have to have,” she says. “We showed them that Canadian-grown can be a very good thing, and maybe even more interesting.”
Flowers have long been used as powerful symbols of change. In the 1960s and early 70s, Flower Power was a rallying cry for passive resistance. In 2015, a decrepit house in Detroit, which became known as Flower House, was filled with 4,000 blooms to show that abandoned properties blighting neighbourhoods could be put to far more productive uses. And two years ago, in New York, floral designer Lewis Miller used eye-popping “Flower Flashes” to raise awareness of the vast amount of waste in his industry. Using hundreds of blooms leftover from events, Miller created flower pop-ups in garbage cans, on sewer grates and over statues in Central Park. His message: reuse and recycle.
Two female entrepreneurs – one in Canada, the other in New York – have built businesses around flower event waste. ReBloom Flower Recycling – in Calgary and Toronto – picks up flowers and redesigns them into small bouquets that are distributed to shelters, seniors’ homes or client’s charity of choice. In New York, Garbage Goddess works toward zero-waste floral events by composting all organic floral material or donating leftover flowers to dye artists.
This summer for Canadian Flowers Week, July 18 to July 24, Kistner is planning another pop-up in Nelson. She’s not sure where, but it will once again be inspired by the colours and textures of plants indigenous to the west coast.
“In the Internet age, where social media feeds are full of images from all across the globe, it’s easy to believe that things that are exotic [foreign] are better or more interesting than what is in our own backyard,” she says. “But I believe it’s just a matter of being creative with what you have in order to see things in a new light.”