How to Be a More Sustainable Florist
Today the flower industry contributes to mountains of landfill, toxic chemical waste and tonnes of carbon emissions. Modern floral design is hugely unsustainable; imported flowers grown with a cocktail of chemicals, exploitative labour practices, flowers flown from overseas and transported across countries in refrigerated lorries, excess packaging, plastic, and floral foam. All of these unsustainable things and processes are rationalised because we are hooked on convenience, unseasonal lifestyles and unrealistic consumer expectations. Most of us are attracted to flowers because of their beauty and connection to the natural world. Flowers are wonderful. I have never known them to not instantly brighten someone's day. As we learn more about the wider impact of the floral industry’s actions, it is important to find opportunities as individuals to create positive change. Whether you are a florist, a consumer or anyone who enjoys flowers in the garden, the the wild or in a vase, we should all be environmentalists by heart, by default and by example. We can change our own practices and we can educate ourselves, our clients and the public. We have put together a guide of some of the biggest things to think about, and what you can do to achieve them.
Find locally grown flowers in your area. Where you source your flowers is one of the most significant ways to create a more sustainable floristry business. 85% of the flowers consumed in the UK are imported with the majority of these stems grown in Africa, India, Israel, and South America. The carbon footprint of transporting these flowers is significant. They are sent from their countries of origin to be sold and distributed to wholesalers around the world via the auction houses in the Netherlands. The flowers are then packed in plastic, wrapped in elastic bands and transported in refrigerated lorries to florists and supermarkets all over the UK; a journey that covers thousands of miles by road and air. A recent study* discovered that one bouquet of 11 stems of imported flowers (5x Dutch roses, 3x Dutch lily, 3x Kenyan gypsophila) generates 32.252 Kg of CO2. If you consider you would use anything from 500 stems upwards on a wedding order, that's a whooping 1466kg of CO2, a flight from London to Paris will create around 59kg of CO2 per person. Multiply that by several wedding events, bouquets, and other orders throughout the year, and then all the florists in this country working in this way, there is simply no justification for the environmental devastation caused by these carbon omissions. In addition, imported flowers are treated with chemicals, fertilisers, pesticides, and preservatives. These chemicals often end up in water systems, damaging aquatic life, wildlife, and local eco-systems. They also present a very real and worrying health risk to people who are exposed to them, from the farm workers, pickers, packers to the florists using them. A study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in Belgium* found that imported flowers contained high chemical residue levels with hazard categories ranging from fatal in contact with skin, fatal if swallowed, fatal if inhaled, toxic if swallowed, toxic in contact with skin, toxic if inhaled, harmful if swallowed, harmful in contact with skin, harmful if inhaled, suspected of causing cancer, serious eye damage, serious eye irritation, may cause genetic defects, suspected of causing genetic defects, may damage fertility or the unborn child, suspected of damaging fertility or the unborn child, may cause harm to breast-fed children, may cause allergy or asthma symptoms or breathing difficulties if inhaled, may cause an allergic skin reaction, causes severe skin burns and eye damage, causes skin irritation, may cause respiratory irritation, causes damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure. Given that many of these chemicals are illegal in the UK, these are shocking statistics and there are currently no regulations in the EU or the UK regarding safe levels of chemicals in imported flowers in the same way that rigorous regulations are in place for imported food. However there is an alternative! You can buy beautiful and natural fresh flowers from small businesses and artisanal growers, keeping down carbon emissions and connecting with the true nature of seasonality as well as supporting this flower growing industry to thrive once again by supporting your local economy. In the winter months, many of those farms will also supply dried flowers and evergreen foliages making your floristry work more interesting and seasonal. Small flower farms such as ours are havens for wildlife and working in harmony with nature and the seasons is of paramount importance. We nurture our wildlife population by actively encouraging beneficial insects and birds which are the best natural pesticides. We use natural botanical oils and spices to deter mice and pests which do not harm pollinators. Choosing locally grown flowers is an easy way to reduce your carbon footprint and improve you and your worker's health. It will improve your design work and aesthetic too. Natural, field grown flowers are infinitely more beautiful and interesting. Working with imported flowers that are characterless, straight and out of season can never produce the soft, organic and natural look that field grown flowers can. Get to know your local growers and develop a more meaningful connection with the product you sell. Provenance is everything and your customers will love to hear the story!
Adopt a no floral foam approach. Floral foam is one of the most damaging materials in the whole floral industry. It's a synthetic, throw-away, non-recyclable plastic created using a combination of toxic materials including carbon black, formaldehyde and phenolic foam. Though its foam structure crumbles and degrades, it doesn't fully dissolve in water or degrade in landfill or soil. When it is soaked in water before use, it sends plastic micro particles into the water system causing direct contamination of the marine environment. After its use, it is destined for landfill where it remains forever, littering our planet after contaminating our water courses. There is simply no place for it in a sustainable floristry practice. There is nothing you can make in foam that you can't make even better with sustainable methods and techniques. Trust us! We create ambitious and gravity defying archways, clouds and cascading staircase installations without foam. Our favourite mechanics are wooden structures, twine, moss, glass vials, reusable vessels, biodegradable hydration bags, and flower frogs - with every design having its own tried and tested innovation. There are lots of resources online with the #nofloralfoam hashtag on instagram created by the Sustainable Floristry Network providing lots of information, inspiration and techniques. Or why not join us on one of our foam-free installation workshops!
Talk to your customers about seasonality and realise that they look to you for your professional guidance. If you offer red roses on Valentines day or show aspirational images of weddings with out of season, imported flowers, dyed and bleached botanicals, your clients are going to want those things. We are all used to having access to unseasonal produce year round and flowers are no different. Explain the seasonal nature of flowers and showcase the local produce you want to promote and work with; precious snowdrops and paperwhites on the bulb in February, muscari in March, narcissi in April, tulips and ranunculus in May, peonies and ranunculus in June, sweet peas all summer long, dahlias and chrysanthemums in October and November, dried flowers and evergreen foliage in December. Give your clients something to look forward to. If you discuss the environmental impact of imported and unseasonal flowers, dyed botanicals, plastic packaging; we guarantee there will be few (if any!) who will insist that they still want those things. After all, we are all drawn to flowers and plants because of a love, reverence and respect for nature. If you are working with a wedding client, manage their expectations of what you can provide at that time of year, be open, honest and ask them to trust in the seasonal process. Show them images of your work to ensure that you are setting a brief that is achievable. If you have these discussions with your customers from the outset, everyone will be on board and avoid any awkward discussions or disappointments later. If you make open dialogue integral to every piece of communication you have with your customers and audience, you will build a community of fellow advocates who will be on board to embrace a sustainability journey together.
Set yourself a future goal. For instance, if you want to limit to what and how much you put into landfill, do a trash audit. Find out what you throw away and set a goal of limiting or eradicating those things from your practice. A first step would be to catalogue all of the supplies you buy and the rubbish generated by those supplies or suppliers. Group them into categories (i.e. packaging, flowers, sundries, tools etc), then set quarterly goals of making measurable progress on a specific category each quarter. Look to ways you can reuse and recycle. If your suppliers are providing you with their products in plastic that can't be reused or recycled or the use of excessive packaging, contact them and ask if you can send the packaging back so they can reuse for your next order or ask them to reconsider their materials before making your next order. You will be surprised how amenable people are to these conversations! Whatever your goal or goals might be, write them down and display somewhere visible to remind yourself regularly. The route to your goal may not be perfect, but as long as you act with purpose and the understanding that you may need to adapt as you learn more, your practice changes, your business grows, and the industry evolves. It can be helpful to set any ambitious goals with a longer time period with a set of achievable shorter-term milestones. Report and reflect on your progress at regular intervals, both the successes and the challenges.
Swap cable ties and wire for twine and raffia. Cable ties are often used by florists to secure on-site floral installations such as staircase designs and archways. These ties are a versatile engineered thermoplastic made from nylon, popular because they offer security and flexibility as well weather and ultra violet resistance but for such a short term purpose, a one day event such as a wedding, they are wholly unnecessary. Cable ties are a single use plastic and even if using the reusable ones, the manufacture of cable ties has a significant contribution to global warming since the production of nylon requires large amounts of water to cool the fibres and produces nitrous oxide which is a greenhouse gas 300x more potent than carbon dioxide. Twine is a fully compostable material, especially when made from sustainable jute which is an environmentally beneficial crop; rain fed, fast growing, improving soil quality, and also reduces carbon dioxide. When you remove the flowers from the installation, the twine can be composted along with the flowers. Twine comes in various strengths known as 'ply' where several strands are combined in the opposite direction to the original spin which is the same principle used for creating strength in ropes for ship rigging and suspension bridges, just on a smaller scale. It really is a wonderful material!
Use reusable materials - flower frogs, chicken wire, glass, and ceramic vases can be used for many many years if looked after properly. Keep chicken wire and frogs clean, dry and moisture free in storage. Opt for glass vials and vases instead of plastic ones. Glass is very long lasting, never losing its integrity or strength. It is also infinitely recyclable thus reducing waste and saving natural resources through its circular economy. Plastic becomes brittle over the years and leeches toxic chemicals into the environment as time passes. If using naturally grown, local and chemical free flowers, set up a compost heap that you can recycle your floral and kitchen waste into compost for your garden, neighbours or local community. Or give any leftover flowers a second life by drying them for your winter work.
Educate yourself and be a constant work in progress. Sustainability is a lifelong commitment and continual learning journey. Take courses and workshops from florists who are doing great work in this area. Above all, be transparent about the ways in which you are working. Don't fall victim to greenwashing which is a hugely undermining problem for those sustainable businesses working hard to reduce their footprint. If you have been commissioned to make something but you don't yet have the skill to make it foam free, do your research first and practice, practice, practice.
Be in it for the long haul. Finding your floristry style, developing your portfolio, building a client base, and honing your own personal aesthetic whilst balancing your commitment to sustainability takes time and hard work. Carving out a sustainable floristry practice or business is complicated and requires openness, commitment, determination, and a clarity of purpose. But you can do it! There are many ethical considerations to make when it comes to sourcing an agricultural product such as flowers. The most important thing to remember is that you might not get it right all the time and there is also no quick fix. Finding a sustainable floristry practice is a journey. The unsustainable, unseasonal and wasteful practices that are rife in our industry are built on convenience and inextricably linked to what we have access to from our wholesalers, educators and driven by unrealistic client expectations. As is often the case, there is never one simple answer to industries that are international and complex. However, there are ways to purchase flowers more consciously and sustainably and to work in ways that are less wasteful. Ways that mean you get to appreciate the beauty of flowers, but also avoid exploitation and environmental degradation too. It is possible, if we actively seek out better options. We have the power to make more environmentally conscious choices by changing our own practices, even in small ways, that can make a bigger impact to our industry and in turn, our planet. Good luck!
*The Carbon Footprint of Flowers
Rebecca Swinn compares the carbon credentials of British grown and imported bouquets in this summary of her dissertation findings by Angela Coulton, Petal and Twig, published by Flowers from the Farm
*Pesticide Residues on Three Cut Flower Species and Potential Exposure of Florists
In order to assess the prevalence of pesticide contamination and the risk of florists’ exposure when handling cut flowers, sampling and analysis of 90 bouquets of the most commonly sold cut flowers in Belgium (50 bouquets of roses; 20 of gerberas, and 20 of chrysanthemums) were carried out.