Thursday, 23 January 2014

Supermarket flowers: an ethical challenge

Look at these beautiful roses – they were imported from Kenya and I bought them in Sainsbury’s for the first of my workshops based on supermarket flowers. Although I prefer to buy seasonal English flowers, in the winter months the choice becomes very limited and I turn to other sources, including supermarkets. The size of the cut flower and houseplant market in the UK is estimated by Mintel to be about £2.2 billion. It is further estimated that about 70% of UK cut flowers are sold through supermarkets. Research by the Garden Museum suggests that only 10% of all the flowers sold in the UK are grown in the UK – this is down from 50% in the 1980s. The large majority of flowers sold in supermarkets are imported from Holland, Kenya and Columbia. In practice, many of the flowers coming through the Dutch flower market are imported into Holland from developing countries. These bright red alstroemeria were imported from Columbia.

Should we be worried about this? Of course we should. We are in danger of losing our British flower growing industry completely and our high street florists are in serious decline. This is mainly because supermarket flowers are ridiculously cheap. They are cheap because most of them have been grown in developing countries where growing costs are less than in the UK (the climate is hotter and the labour costs are rock bottom low) and also because of the supermarkets’ buying power which drives growers’ prices down. However, there are a number of ethical challenges associated with flowers imported from developing countries. A War on Want Report, ‘The human cost of cut flowers in British supermarkets’, published in 2007 provided evidence of very poor working conditions for flower workers (largely women) in Columbia and Kenya – these included very low pay, exposure to toxic chemicals, repetitive strain injuries, forced labour and job insecurity. Concerns were also raised about the use of huge amounts of water to cultivate flowers at the expense of small-scale farmers growing other crops. These concerns are supported by a number of recent academic papers about the cut flower industry in a range of developing countries. For example:
I am pleased to say that we can all do something about this by buying flowers certified by the Fair Trade Foundation. This is an independent, non-profitmaking organisation which licenses the use of the fair trade mark in accordance with international standards. It states ‘Our vision is of a world in which justice and sustainable development are at the heart of trade structures and practices so that everyone, through their work, can maintain a decent and dignified livelihood and develop their full potential.’ It works to achieve better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability and fair trade for farmers and workers in the developing world. When flower farmers achieve fair trade certification they commit to implementing better pay and working conditions and to farming in a more sustainable and safer way. When you buy fair trade flowers you pay an extra 10% (the fair trade premium) for your flowers and this goes back to the flower workers for projects to support them and their communities. All the roses pictured here and used in my workshops were sourced from fair trade farms and if you look on the flower packaging it will tell you exactly where the flowers came from. If you then look on Sainsbury’s website you can link up with the Fair Trade Foundation to find out what the fair trade premium (10% of the cost of the flowers) achieved for the flower workers (things like schools, vaccinations, clinics and water purification). For example:
I decided to concentrate on using fair trade roses for my two workshops. First of all we made a contemporary arrangement in small square boxes. I made these by covering juice cartons with pretty vintage paper. For the Christmas workshop I used a Christmassy vintage paper. Here are the boxes.

And here are the arrangements – they work well either spread out (pretty with tea lights set in between the boxes) or pushed together into a block to make an impact.

We also made a simple, but effective arrangement of three roses in a pretty glass bottle. We used Belvoir cordial bottles for this – they have a vintage look about them with the name Belvoir pressed into the glass. These look great if you place three in a row along a window sill or a mantelpiece.

Then we made a wilder arrangement in a glass jug using fair trade roses, alstroemeria and seasonal foliage. Supermarkets sell hardly any foliage (and if they do it is tremendously expensive) so we used foliage gathered from around my house. For the first workshop we used holly, ivy and yew (be careful with yew as it is very poisonous!).

We also used white English alstroemeria from Cornwall (to go with the pink roses). I was delighted to find that Sainsbury’s was selling this when I went flower shopping (though they didn`t have it when I went shopping for the second workshop). Again, the packaging was very informative and provided details of the grower and his farm – the flowers were super fresh and very lovely. Another hit for Sainsbury’s as far as I am concerned. So here is something else we can all do – buy British flowers whenever they are available.

For the second workshop we used the bright red alstroemeria from Columbia with white roses. The foliage was ivy, holly and pine (including few pine cones…..very Christmassy). Here are some pictures from both of the workshops:

And here are some of the workshop participants – all looking very pleased with their beautiful arrangements.

I would like to finish this blog on an up-beat note. There has been a lot of interest in British flowers recently and many people are beginning to see what growing in our own country has to offer. Last spring (2013) the Garden Museum in London ran an exhibition with the title of Floriculture – Flowers, Love and Money. This included ‘a celebration of domestic growers, an industry which has all but vanished but may be revived by a new generation of eco-aware creative growers’. Then New Covent Garden ran a British Flowers Week in June last year – this featured British peonies, delphiniums, sweet peas, stocks and foliage (see my blog of June 2013, including my own contribution to the week). More recently my wholesaler in Cornwall – James at Flowers by Clowance – reported that the current BBC series on the Great British Garden Revival has led to an increase in orders for English flowers. Fantastic. He also told his customers about the Great Flower Farmers’ Meet Up in Devon a couple of weeks ago. 100 British flower growers met together for what sounds like informative sessions about developing businesses, mutual support and a lot of fun. This makes me feel more optimistic about the future of the industry. Finally, as a contrast to the Kenyan roses, here is a picture to remind you of what a spring bouquet made with only English flowers and foliage looks like – soft, fragrant and colourful. Simply lovely.

So, my challenge to you all is to buy British flowers and Fair Trade flowers whenever you can. As consumers we have a lot of power if we act together and we can make a real difference to the lives of flower farmers here in the UK and also around the world.