Tulips growing in the Fraser Valley in BC, Canada.

21 million tulips are grown every year in British Columbia.

Photo from BC Gov Photos on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license. 
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

VALENTINE’S DAY means that thousands of Canadians will be heading to the florist to purchase the classic symbol of undying love – a bouquet of roses. Flowers are also a popular gift for birthdays, Mother’s Day and get-well-soon wishes. So popular, in fact, that global cut-flower sales approached $14-billion last year.

Chances are high that the flowers you see at Canadian florists or grocery stores were grown in Latin America and shipped in refrigerated containers. In 2012, Canada imported $140-million worth of cut flowers; Colombia accounts for 55 per cent of imports, followed by Ecuador at 26 per cent.

Because roses are often grown in countries where little pesticide regulation exists, growers use obsolete and potentially dangerous pesticides, fertilizers and fungicides (such as DDT, dieldrin, methyl parathion and more), many of which are banned in North America. According to Richard Wiles, former vice-president of research for the Environmental Working Group, toxin levels in roses are high enough that their handlers should be wearing gloves. It’s safe to say Rachel Carson is rolling in her grave.

There are also concerns about workers’ rights. Many flower workers are paid poverty-level wages and have no benefits. According to the International Labour Rights Forum, Colombian workers are paid an average of $7 per day—less than the cost of a single bouquet in Canada. Workers are exposed to a cocktail of highly toxic chemicals every day; nearly two-thirds of Colombian flower workers suffer from health problems including nausea, impaired vision, congenital malformations, and respiratory and neurological problems. Finally, there is the water needed to grow flowers (a single rose takes about seven to 13 litres of water to produce), plus the runoff containing chemicals used to make the roses look perfect. Suddenly, roses don’t seem so sweet.

If it’s important to you—or to your sweetheart—to make ethically sound and environmentally responsible buying choices, consider skipping cut flowers altogether. (But be mindful: jewelry and chocolate can also be ethical minefields.) Here are some greener floral options:

Buy local – carefully

Ask your florist if they have any local options, or head to your nearest farmers’ market. Locally grown flowers are fresher and they’ll last longer, and you can keep your carbon footprint low by also looking for seasonal varieties—although some flowers from local greenhouses can be very energy intensive to produce as well. But buying local means you can ask questions firsthand about how the flowers were grown.

Ontarians have a searchable database of florists that sell local flowers, regional growers and seasonal availability at pickOntario. Some florists, like My Luscious Backyard, even grow their own.

Buy certified – carefully

Many certifications promise workers’ rights and environmental protection, but not all labels are created equal. Colombia’s industry-run Florverde label has been heavily criticized. ILRF says Florverde is “not motivated by an interest to protect workers, but by an interest to sell flowers to US consumers.” And while the Rainforest Alliance label on flowers guarantees environmental sustainability, its neglect of worker protection remains a concern.

Your best bet is to look (and ask!) for Fair Trade-certified bouquets, which ensures safety and good working conditions for floriculture employees. US-based Veriflora is widely considered the gold standard in certification for both workers and the planet. Canadians may also be familiar with the ‘Certified Sierra Eco Partner’ seal, developed by Canada’s largest importer of flowers more than a decade ago.

Buy a living plant

Keep the love alive—literally—with the gift of a plant. Unlike cut flowers, plants can be enjoyed for months and they help purify indoor air. Consider gifting a potted herb plant—the Italians see basil as a symbol of love. Grow your own Pick up a pretty pot and some organic seeds from your local nursery, or from online retailers like uharvest.ca, terraedibles.ca or saltspringseeds.com. Tuck in a little note and wrap with rustic burlap for an easy DIY touch. Voilà—let your love grow.

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