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The true impact of cut flowers

The COVID 19 pandemic has had a plethora of unexpected consequences, from a rise in domestic violence cases to massive reductions in global carbon emissions. When it comes to cut flowers, the pandemic has had both expected and unexpected impacts.

Initially, lockdowns crashed the EU cut flower market, which lost €1bn in the first six weeks of lockdown. This impacted not just retailers, but also growers and suppliers alike. However, unexpectedly, after the initial lockdown, the online floriculture market started to appeal to younger consumers looking to brighten up their homes, send gifts remotely and benefit from having a little slice of nature at home. This causes e-commerce flower sales to boom, and also forced retailers to look at their supply chains in order to develop resilience for the future.

Unfortunately, however, there are many considerations to take into account when it comes to buying flowers, as with any globally produced product. The UK is a major market for cut flowers in Europe, with annual consumption exceeding €2.5 billion. Between 2011 and 2015, the annual import of roses alone increased from €161bn to €182bn, making up around 25% of all imported flowers sold. Most of these come in from the Netherlands, but increasingly flowers are grown in less economically developed countries (LEDCs), such as Kenya and Ethiopia, thanks to climatic conditions allowing for year-round production, and cheaper labour costs.

SO WHAT ARE THE ISSUES?

There are many variables that affect the environmental and ethical impact of cut flowers, such as growing conditions, pesticide use, import distance and method and working conditions.

Since cut flowers are not edible, they do not have the same regulatory controls as crops, meaning that pesticide use is rampant, and pesticide residue is much higher than allowed on foodstuffs. It is estimated that one fifth of the chemicals used in the floricultural industry in LEDCs is banned or untested in the US. For example, methyl bromide, a toxic chemical used as a pesticide, was banned and ceased to be used in the US by 2005 due to its harmful effect on the ozone layer and potency as a greenhouse gas. However, it took until 2015 for it to be phased out elsewhere, leading to numerous potential issues, both environmentally and ethically – methyl bromide is highly toxic to humans and may affect the nervous system after long-term use. In the same way that factory workers in the fashion industry are often exposed to harmful chemicals through their work, floriculture workers have similar issues. A study of female workers in Ecuador showed that pregnant women exposed to everyday pesticides were more likely to have children with a neurological impairment and high blood pressure.

Another issue of note when it comes to growing conditions is water usage. The water footprint of one rose flower is estimated to be 7–13 litres, and the market for cut flowers could eat into the water availability for other industries, such as food production. Virtual water refers to the amount of water required to produce an amount of product, e.g. on average it takes 1,340 cubic meters of water to produce one metric tonne of wheat. Floriculture accounts for 45% of the virtual water exports from Kenya, i.e. of all exported goods, the floriculture industry requires 45% of total water usage. This can place added strain on water-poor countries, and further regulation is needed to ensure a fair distribution of water throughout vital industries.

Emissions are the most obvious difference between imported and cut flowers. According to one study, emission savings are the greatest when purchasing British-grown bouquets, followed by those with a longer vase-life (as fewer will need to be bought). Imported stems produce at least 3x as many emissions as British-grown, maxing out at a whopping 67x the emissions for the most polluting, when considering transportation, heating and electricity for growing. 

Ethically, the conditions on some flower farms have significant room for improvement. Floriculture provides vital work and income to many, many people – in Kenya alone, it provides over 2 million jobs and over $500 million a year for the country. However, floriculture often uses a workforce of poor, less educated, primarily female workers, meaning that the industry is ripe for exploitation. This can come in the form of low pay, poor and dangerous working conditions and repression of vital trade unions, especially in LEDCs. The issues aren’t constrained to poorer countries, however – pesticide use in the Netherlands still has harmful effects on workers, and the industry is being encouraged to clean up its act, after a report showed that pesticide use was six times higher than other forms of intensive agriculture in the same regions. 

Thankfully, the market share of locally produced UK flowers has been increasing steadily, thanks in part due to the more rigorous ethical and social standards, such as the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) and Fairtrade.

HOW CAN WE HELP?
  • Regardless of flower origin, if you’re looking to buy fresh cut flowers, search for certifications such as FairtradeFlorverde or ETI to ensure certain baseline standards have been adhered to. 
  • Look for organic flowers, as excessive fertiliser and pesticide use can harm local wildlife and waterways, as well as workers. This is a problem both in the UK and abroad.
  • Look for companies that have committed to reducing their packaging. Most flowers are transported in plastic and then packaged in non-recyclable cellophane, which never biodegrades. If you require packaging, check that the company provides recyclable wrapping, or better still, no packaging at all. 
  • For the most-part, opting for long-lasting potted plants bought from independent sellers who can verify their origins is significantly better than looking for the cheapest supermarket cut flowers or potted plant of unknown origin. Not only are you likely to get a better-quality product, you’re also helping to support small businesses and local growers, if you choose well. If you’re looking to trade cut flowers for pot plants, ensure they’re not imported from the other side of the world. China currently provides 18.6% of the world’s cut and potted plants and plans to become the largest flower exporter in Asia and second globally after the Netherlands, meaning that even more environmentally sound potted plants could come with a sizeable carbon footprint. 
  • Look for other gifts. There are many ways to tell someone they mean something to you without buying flowers. Shop small and local where possible – that way you’re supporting not only the gift recipient, but also an individual who truly appreciates your custom.

Article written by Hattie Webb, research assistant.

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How to be a conscious gardener

“We may think we are nurturing the garden, but of course it’s our garden that is really nurturing us” Jenny Uglow.
Gardening is good for our mental health and physical wellbeing so as we continue to seek natural havens to escape the stresses of day-to-day life, it is not surprising that gardening has become a huge trend. While adding more green to our world is helpful and great for the environment, it is essential to do it well in a way. We have put together some tips for your to become a conscious gardener.

 

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5 sustainable & stylish fitness brands to know

The fashion industry is labelled one of the most polluting industries on the planet. As an extension of the fashion industry, athleisure is no different. Good news: the activewear industry is slowly moving in the right direction. Brands big and small are innovating with recycled materials, eco-friendly dyes and low-impact fabrics . Keep in mind, nothing is more sustainable than the activewear you already have at home. We put together a list of our favourite sustainable and stylish fitness brands for the next time you need some new pieces.
Remember, recycled polyester still sheds microfibres so it’s important to launder it carefully. We recommend a Guppyfriend washing bag.
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A runner’s guide to sustainable nutrition

At its core, running is the ultimate sustainable sport. It requires not much more than your legs and a pair of trainers, it’s hard to wonder what could be so unsustainable about running. However, between wearing out shoes, constant new kit, travel to races and plastic food packaging, the climate impact can quickly build up. 

As we lead up to marathon season, one of the most common issues eco-conscious competitors will face is the number of plastic wrappers on all things to do with running nutrition. From energy gels to drinks and protein bars, the single-use packaging adds up, but it doesn’t have to be this way, as evidenced by the number of  brands who are switching to more eco-friendly formulas and sustainable packaging. As a runner myself, I’m constantly on the hunt for products that work well and are kinder on the planet. Here are some of my favourites.

Energy gels

Finding eco-friendly fuel for long runs has been the number one question I get regarding nutrition. It’s a tough one – any extra weight when you’re running is detrimental, so single-use, disposable sachets have long been the packaging of choice when it comes to running gels. The problem is, not only is this packaging reliant on harmful fossil fuels, it’s also damaging (and unsightly) when it accidentally falls onto the trails.

A natural alternative to modern sports nutrition, Lucho Dillitos is my go-to trail ‘gel’, although in reality it is a solid block more than a gel. Based on the traditional Colombian dessert Bocadillo, this fuel is made from guava fruit (85%) and sugar (15%). Because of its ingredients, it’s super high in vitamin C, vitamin A and potassium – useful for when out on a run. Most importantly, it’s wrapped in a dried leaf which is completely compostable. Once the block is eaten, the leaf can be discarded on the trail like any other leaf, where it will biodegrade. The blocks also avoid the problem of sticky wrappers and half-eaten gels in your running pack – a huge bugbear of mine! 

If you prefer liquid gels, one alternative could be to create your own, either with a gel mix or using home ingredients. Active Root is a small brand providing eco-friendly electrolyte and gel mixes. Its powdered gel can be mixed with water to create a natural energy gel, completely erasing the need for single-use gel sachets. They sell soft-flasks for mixing, holding the equivalent of 3 – 4 gels, and some flavours even have caffeine in, too.

Protein

Most protein brands package their products in plastic or mixed-material packaging, making it harder to recycle and (again) heavily reliant on fossil fuels. Additionally, whey protein relies on carbon-intensive animal agriculture. Opting for vegan proteins can reduce the overall impact of the product itself, and choosing plastic-free compostable or recyclable packaging lessens the environmental cost further. 

Introducing Vivo Life, a specialist in supplements that don’t cost the earth. Not only are its proteins all 100% plant-based (using a mix of protein sources including hemp protein, pea protein and soy protein) to minimise the impact of animal agriculture, it is also a certified carbon neutral company, including delivery. As much as possible, Vivo uses organic ingredients, and its delivery boxes are cut from recycled card. On top of all this, Vivo has ditched plastic scoops and is switching to home-compostable packaging within the year – a positive change which will pave the way for others in the supplements industry. 

Hydration/electrolytes

For longer and warmer runs, hydration in the form of electrolytes is vital, both out on the run and when you return home afterwards. Electrolytes are not only important to allow your muscles to contract and relax (hence why athletes get cramps if they don’t have enough), they’re also key to recovery after each run. If you don’t take rehydration seriously, your next run will suffer. 

Active Root is a small UK-based brand providing eco-friendly electrolyte mixes. Each pack contains 1.4kg of powder (cane sugar, ginger powder and sea salt), enough to make 40 500ml electrolyte drinks. The refill sachets are 100% compostable too, making this an entirely plastic and waste free option. And, because of the ginger, it’s a great option for people who get upset stomachs on the move! 

Vivo Life also provides hydration mixes (Sustain), using coconut water mixed with EAAs (essential amino acids, providing further recovery benefits). The orange & baobab flavour is my absolute fave post-workout for muscle repair and rehydration.

On the go snacks

Created to help you hit your long term health and wellness goals, nutrition brand Human Food offers up natural snacks packaged in home-compostable packaging made from plant-based cellulose. The wrapper can be disposed of in your food-waste bin or compost, and if it flies out of your running pack on the move it won’t wreak havoc with the local ecosystem (although it’s better to find a compost bin rather than throwing in a hedge as conditions are better for decomposition in the former). 

I really like making my own snacks at home, too. Homemade ginger cake or flapjacks are my favourite, and make a nice change from pre-packaged foods during an ultra-marathon. Storage can be difficult but beeswax wraps or reusable zip-locked sandwich bags tend to do the trick. Snacks that can be bought in bulk, like trail mix also make for decent food, but remember that high-fat foods such as nuts are processed slower than sugar, so best for long and/or slow expeditions. 

It can be hard to find what works for you on a long run, and harder still to find eco-friendly options. Thankfully, so many brands are coming out of the woodwork and stepping up to the mark when it comes to sustainability, and hopefully soon running can be the simple, eco-friendly sport it was meant to be.

Follow @foodfitnessflora for more tips.