A blooming industry

Certified sustainable flowers take workers and the environment into account

Jacque Melzer, floral manager at Moana Nursery in Reno, holds up organic tulips from Holland.

Jacque Melzer, floral manager at Moana Nursery in Reno, holds up organic tulips from Holland.

Photo By David Robert

Poison is probably not the first thing you think of when you send someone flowers, but a growing portion of the cut-flower industry is encouraging consumers to consider it.

It’s no surprise that food corners the organic market—making $17 billion in 2006, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic flowers, on the other hand, brought in only $19 million in the $21 billion-a-year floriculture industry. After all, aside from a bistro salad with pansies and nasturtium, few people eat flowers.

Yet, many flowers sold today carry toxic histories of sick workers and polluted water and land. The risk is less to consumers than to the flower producers. Roughly 80 percent of cut flowers in the United States are imported from Ecuador or Colombia. Ecuadorian flower workers have reported chronic skin, respiratory, neurological and reproductive problems, which they attribute to the steady stream of pesticides and fungicides they breathe every day. Some of the pests these chemicals try to combat only come back with a vengeance, requiring still stronger pesticides.

“If we continue to use pesticides, pests become resistant to them, and then we have superbugs,” says Jacque Melzer, floral manager at Moana Nursery.

But a niche section of the floral market is going the way of coffee, produce and shampoo—to the eco-label.

Veriflora is a sustainability certification program for cut flowers and plants, and it’s label means they were grown with little to no pesticides, with strict guidelines for the environment, social/worker responsibility and quality.

“There has been a lot of negative press about flowers, which tends to drive the good farms crazy because they’re looking for some type of recognition that they’re doing the right thing,” says Michael Keyes, Veriflora certification manager. “This is what the voluntary third-party certification offers. They get credit in the marketplace, and consumers can feel good about what they’re giving.”

Other eco-labels include Fair Trade and Flora Verde, though Veriflora is trying to set a nationwide standard for what “sustainable” means for flowers.

Calls to a handful of popular Reno florists found that few have heard of Veriflora or routinely carry any type of sustainable or organic flowers. Many say the price is cost-prohibitive for most consumers. However, online prices are roughly the same or slightly more than conventionally grown flowers. For example, a dozen lavender roses at Organicbouquet.com cost $50 around Valentine’s Day.

Farmers markets often carry organic, local and sustainably grown flowers, which also don’t have to travel far to reach consumers. Off-season, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s occasionally carry eco-friendly varieties. Organicbouquet.com, Californiaorganicflowers.com and Diamondorganics.com ship year-round to 48 states. FTD Florists offer some sustainable or organic flowers, and Sam’s Club carries Fair Trade certified roses from Ecuador.

Even if they don’t carry eco-friendly flowers, some florists are willing to special order. But give the florist plenty of time for special order flowers—they might be treading on new ground.