People love flowers. Over the past 30 years, floral world trade has grown from an industry of just over one billion dollars to one worth more than $16 billion.
The U.S. is one of the biggest players in that industry, importing $1.5 billion worth of flowers in 2018, making it the biggest cut flower buyer in the world. According to the United Nations International Trade Statistics Database, that’s a total of 201,881,003 stems, bundles, and bunches (that’s right – we’re not talking individual flowers), second only in quantity to the Netherlands.
The difference? In the Netherlands, a majority of the 288,362,304 imported bunches of blossoms are reexported to buyers around the world. In the U.S., imported flowers take part in the second biggest floral holiday of the year – Valentine’s Day.
Unsurprisingly, the Netherlands is responsible for 43 percent of world flower exports, though in recent years countries closer to the equator have been making a break for it. In 2015, Colombia and Kenya took 15 and 11 percent of the share, respectively.
This is important for the U.S., which got 4 billion of its flowers from Colombia in 2017. Flowers increasingly no longer come from local growers – primarily in California – instead favoring warmer and less energy-intensive climates farther south. The American flower industry has dropped 95 percent since 1991, as eyes turn from heated northern greenhouses to sun-soaked fields on the equator.
Flower farms in the tropical zone are becoming more popular as growers realize the benefit of year-round warm weather. In colder areas, heating greenhouses during winter months makes up a majority of the cost of flower farming.
In the Netherlands, the average low temperature in February is a chilly 34 degrees Fahrenheit. Flowers, meanwhile, prefer to be kept at 80-85 degrees. That means that heating a small commercial greenhouse for the month could use nearly 5000 kWh of energy. For reference, the average American uses 867 kWh per month.
The obvious assumption is that it’s much better to grow blooms in a place where greenhouses are heated efficiently by nothing more than the free power of the sun.
But those overseas flowers don’t come without a cost. 40 percent of the world’s cut flowers are imported to and then reexported from the Netherlands, sent in a “cold-chain” on Boeing 747s (among other planes, probably) from Kenya to Europe and beyond.
A Boeing 747 can carry 90 tons of flowers which, with shipping boxes averaging 15 bunches of flowers at 35 kg per box, adds up to about 35,000 bunches of flowers. If all the flowers imported to the U.S. flew on planes, that would be over 5,700 trips, which adds up to a lot of carbon dioxide emissions.
As for Valentine’s Day in the U.S., it’s estimated that the 200 million roses ordered for the big day, up from 100 million ten years earlier, come with 19,800 tons of CO2 emissions.
Overall, growing roses in the Netherlands produces nearly 6 times as many emissions as growing them in Kenya, including the environmental cost of transportation to their destination.
Between California and Colombia, cheaper production cost in South America’s warm climate has driven business to the south, potentially to stay.
Many Colombian flower growers now follow Florverde standards which, among other things, certify that flowers were grown in an eco-friendly way. Flowers from these farms come with a Florverde label and have been raised using less water and fewer pesticides.
For U.S.-grown blossoms, flowers raised outdoors or in an unheated greenhouse will carry a much less energy-intensive cost than those grown in a commercial hothouse.
But the most eco-friendly way to enjoy flowers? In their natural habitat, grown organically, untouched by greenhouses, planes, or people as a commercial holiday byproduct.
Jenna is a writer covering the environment and energy industry. She is a Massachusetts native and graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and French.