Green Sanctuary Committee Exposes Hidden Problems in Cut Flowers – Anne Perkins

Cut flowers in a vase on an altar or table always bring me joy. They add so much to my pleasure that I was really unhappy to learn that there are serious problems with almost all of the cut flowers available for purchase in the United States. The issue was brought to the attention of the Green Sanctuary Committee by Jess Murphy last Spring, and we have begun to look into it with the idea of sharing our findings with the congregation.

There are basically two environmental problems with most cut flowers for sale in the US: transportation and pesticides/herbicides/fungicides. Some 82% of all the cut flowers that are sold in the US come from Latin America; plane loads of such flowers are shipped each day in special temperature controlled planes. Columbia alone does over $1 billion in such sales a year. Airplanes flying high in our skies while burning tons of fossil fuel are a major carbon pollutant. Thus to purchase flowers flown in from Latin America is antithetical to combating climate change.

Equally important is the fact that pesticides and herbicides are heavily used in growing the flowers – without the kind of minimal controls that exist in the US to protect the workers and the land/water. Thus the soil and water used by the workers who live in the areas have become seriously polluted. When the only work available is in these flower factories, the local people have no choice but to work in the flower industry. The pollution has led to health problems for many of the workers and residents. (See also this link.)

Members of our Green Sanctuary Committee have talked to the flower buyers in several local stores. I spoke with the woman who buys for Whole Foods in Hadley. She candidly told me that it is very difficult to buy pesticide free flowers and that almost all come from Latin America. She said that they do occasionally get organically grown flowers, but they cost more and therefore don’t sell as well. They also sell flowers from local farms, but didn’t mention whether or not they use pesticides. Lastly she said that Whole Foods tries to purchase “Whole Trade” flowers. While they also come from Latin America, the growers are required to treat their employees well in terms of pay and working conditions. All of their flowers are marked by source: local, organic, or Whole Trade. So we buyers can make informed decisions at Whole Foods.

Other committee members talked to the following local stores. Here is a summary of what they learned:

  • Big Y (Louise Grosslein): Many flowers are from Latin America;
  • Atkins (Mary Myse): Flowers come from various sources—California, South America, local;
  • Trader Joe’s (Sophie Rogers, reported to Mary): Most come from the USA. Their policy is that suppliers treat workers well.
  •  Sophie also found two articles that describe the efforts some stores are making nationally, such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s; link 1 and link 2.

While no one on the Green Sanctuary Committee would want to negatively impact the income of low-wage workers in Latin America, we do want to help solve the problems presented by buying flowers from abroad. The Europeans are demanding that lower levels of toxins be used on imported flowers. Perhaps UU’s could join that effort. And for our UUSA altar and home tables, perhaps we could use local untreated flowers in the summer, and potted plants, leaves/gourds or other creative arrangements in the winter.

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