Sustainable Flowers and Floristry

August 15

1 comments

By Carolyn

August 15, 2021


sustainable floristry in foam-free arrangement with no floral foam

This beautiful centerpiece is made with all organically grown flowers from our garden, without using floral foam. Beautiful and sustainable!

If you've spent more than five minutes on Instagram, you know that wedding flowers come in a dizzying selection of color, scent, and texture. But you won't find many designers telling you where their flowers came from, who grew them, or how they were grown. Are they sustainable flowers? Are they imported or local? How did they impact the environment? Just like you should care where your food comes from, you should care where your flowers come from. There are all sorts of florists out there, using all sorts of products. But there are so many environmental implications to how flowers are grown, packaged, delivered, and arranged. So we want to make sure you know about sustainable flowers and sustainable floristry practices, and how we prioritize sustainability in our studio.

What are sustainable flowers?

First, let's define what we mean by sustainable flowers. I'm going to borrow the definition of sustainability from sustainable agriculture. Sustainable flowers (and floristry) use practices and methods that are financially profitable, ecologically sound, and socially supportive. Let's talk about each of these in turn. 

Sustainable flowers are FINANCIALLY profitable

a woman having a conversation on her laptop in the kitchen

We cannot call any flowers "sustainable" if the farmer or florist cannot make a living. Florists and farmers have to charge enough to make a profit. In the last 15 years, we have seen this lack of sustainability as we've watched the closure of small businesses of all kinds. Unfortunately, many florists and flower farmers only charge enough to "get by," and are supported by their spouse or an additional job. This is not sustainable!

Sustainable flowers are environmentally sound

a bucket of salmon ranunculus freshly harvested from the flower field

The second pillar of sustainable flowers is using methods that are environmentally sound. There are so many implications for the products and methods that we use in our work, from the flowers themselves to the trash we create. Here are some of the biggest things we are thinking about. 

Carbon footprint

a plane flies across a blue sky with jet streams

Did you know? About 80% of flowers sold in the US are imported from countries like Colombia, Ecuador, and the Netherlands. This means we fly in 40,000 of boxes daily, with seven flights a day. This emits the same amount of CO2 as 219 passenger vehicles being driven for one year, or 180 homes powered for a whole year! And 74% of consumers don’t know the origins of their flowers. The most sustainable flowers are local flowers, since it reduces carbon footprint significantly. And as a sustainable floral studio and members of Slow Flowers, we always prioritize locally grown flowers in our work. When we buy from local farmers, they are driven less than 50 miles to Seattle. We also design based on the seasons and encourage our clients to be flexible, which allows us to source amazing treasures from our local farms.

Chemical pesticide and fungicide use

a farmer sprays a yellow mum crop

Pesticides and fungicides are used widely by commercial cut flower growers, which is why it is so important to know where your flowers come from and how they are grown. A study of the most commonly imported flowers found a total of 107 pesticide and fungicide residues within their sample. These residues included substances that presented acute toxicity, which means that “exposure can generate a direct effect on the nervous system of florists.” And florists spend hours per day handling flowers, often with no protective equipment, only to hand them off to customers who touch and smell them.

There is a TON of evidence on pesticides and their harm to human and environmental health. Here is a good peer-reviewed summary if you are interested in further reading. We will never hand off flowers to a client that we would not feel comfortable touching or sticking our noses into. 

We grow some of our own sustainable flowers using organic methods, and purchase from other growers who do the same. We all try to mitigate the use of organic fertilizers and pesticides in the ways that we practice agriculture, including planting things that improve our soil nutrients, encouraging insects who eat pests, and “trapping” pests with plants they enjoy eating. When we cannot source what we need locally, we try to buy from flower farms who have eco-friendly certifications. Minimizing our use of pesticides and fungicides is a key part of growing sustainable flowers.

trash generation

a picture of floral foam with a note that it is toxic trash #nofloralfoam

If you have ever grabbed stems from a grocery store, you know that flowers always come with trash! There is a cellophane package, a rubber band with polyester on it (so it can’t be composted), and plastic packet of flower food, and maybe also some stickers. There can be this much trash for just five stems. Now think about the boxes they came in (with staples, which is harder to recycle), the bubble wrap, the pallet. It all adds up. With local flowers, we buy our flower bunches in buckets, with real rubber bands, and without the cellophane. You’ll also often see local bouquets with compostable cellophane or paper as a wrap.

Florists also use a lot of what we call “hard goods”— things like wire, twine, ribbon, vases, and glue. Some of these are recyclable or reusable, while others are not. And the biggest trash florists generate by far is in their use of floral foam. Floral foam is a plastic, specifically "fine-celled thermoset phenolic plastic foam." If you've ever handled it, you know it breaks down into dust. Plastic dust. A microplastic. Of course, now microplastics have been found in our drinking water, soil, and flesh. They are too small to filter out, which is why we wind up with them lodged in our bodies. Floral foam is not biodegradable. But it doesn't stop there. It also contains phenol and formaldehyde, which is carcinogenic and should be handled with gloves and goggles. Again, florists are not usually wearing protective gear and can be harmed by this stuff. (And so can you.)

Thanks to leaders in our industry, many of us have gone “foam-free,” including our studio. You might see the hashtags “#foamfree” or “#nofloralfoam” floating around, because we realize that floral foam is toxic trash that we should be phasing out. Some florists still use floral foam for every arrangement, installation, and wedding that they do! As a consumer, you have a choice to support florists who have learned how to make beautiful things without foam.

water pollution

a view of seattle from puget sound

As mentioned earlier, pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers, and microplastics can all be easily leached into our waterways and water supply due to the floral trade. In Seattle, this is a particular concern because of our dwindling salmon and Orca populations. Our floral studio is just a short drive away from the Ballard locks, where we have a salmon ladder. None of this is hypothetical in our business, as we see the impacts of our climate crisis all around us. Choosing not to use harmful pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers, and floral foam has real impacts for the water that we share with the rest of our beautiful region.

dyed and bleached flowers

a dyed "brownie" tulip
a dyed blue tulip

Have you seen these tulips floating around the internet? They're on every wedding blog now, but tulips do not come in these colors. They are dyed. What's in the dye? No wholesaler will tell us. Is it safe to handle? Who knows! Is it compostable? No one knows! This lack of transparency frustrates us. Not only are the stems imported, but they are also dyed with unknown substances, and cannot safely be composted. And of course, people want them, because they're pretty - even if we do not want to work with them.

The tulip on the left is the most annoying, because wholesalers are marketing it as a "Brownie" tulip. But there is actually a variety of tulip called "Brownie" already, and it looks like this. (We know because we grew them.)

the real brownie tulip - a burnt orange color

Most consumers - and many florists - couldn't tell you which is the real "Brownie." And that is a real shame. As florists, it is our job to know botanicals by heart, and to honor and celebrate the beautiful things that nature gives us. Frankly, we don't see dyed and bleached botanicals as a big improvement on what grows naturally. But they continue to be in demand, and we continue to refuse to work with them. 

bleached ruscus

And you've probably seen bleached dried leaves like these, right? Bleached botanicals are even more terrifying, to be honest. Of course, the wholesalers will not share anything about the process. So, OG sustainable flower farmer Linda D'Arco did some great digging on this. From the documents she found, we believe it involves a lot of scary chemicals including hypochlorites, sodium chlorite, peroxide, hydrosulphites, borohydride, sulphur dioxide, and glycerin. They are also using "water soluble plastic" to preserve it. Um, y'all, so sorry, but we are not touching any of that stuff. We can source beautiful natural dried things that don't trash the planet or our health.

When we think about sustainable flowers and floristry, we are always thinking about how to reduce our harmful impacts. In our practice, this means that we buy local and organically grown flowers whenever possible, reduce our trash, and eliminate floral foam.

Sustainable flowers ALSO sustain our communities

alyssa of Sweet Alyssum Farm

Alyssa O'Sullivan of Sweet Alyssum Farm on Vashon - one of our pals and one of the 50+ farmers we trust to provide us with sustainable flowers

The third pillar of sustainability has to do with social sustainability, in that sustainable flowers should also sustain our communities. For sustainable floristry, this primarily means buying local flowers. There are many other benefits to buying local flowers that we have already covered, but when you work with us, you support our family, as well as our farmers and everyone else in the local supply chain. You are supporting the local co-op where we shop, which is priced so that farmers can make a living selling their crops. You are supporting the family farms in Washington who supply the branches, greens, and flowers that we use. (Like Alyssa, of Sweet Alyssum Farm, above - from whom we routinely source gorgeous and sustainable blooms.) You are even supporting the local farm stores who sell products to farmers. Every dollar spent with us is going back into the local economy, and supporting local people. This is the kind of commerce we need if we want to sustain our local communities.

When florists use imported flowers, not only are our local dollars diverted to huge import businesses, but we also cannot ensure that workers were not exploited in growing those flowers. Different countries have different labor standards and enforcement compared to the US. Aside from pesticide exposure, workers may be underpaid, overworked, underage, or fired because they got pregnant or sick—sometimes from the very pesticides used in their work. Many countries do not have minimum wage laws, and cases of slavery and child labor have been reported in countries like Ecuador, Colombia, India, and Kenya. Of course, this is not the case at every flower farm abroad, but it does force us to be smarter consumers and ask about where our flowers are coming from. Florists can and should ensure that their imported flowers are coming from a farm with a fair-trade approach to labor, protections for workers, and fair wages. 

Buying local flowers eliminates this uncertainty, as well as putting our money back into our community, which is why we will choose local flowers over imported flowers every time.

SUSTAINABLE FLOWERS ARE THE FUTURE

This is a long read, but we really want you to know that you have a choice when you start looking for a florist. We want you to have the best flowers money can buy, which means thinking beyond aesthetics and looking at ethics. Sustainable floristry is a real movement, with design studios like ours trying to sustain ourselves financially, practice floristry in ecologically sound ways, and support our communities.

As you shop for a floral designer for your wedding, we would love for you to ask these hard questions about where and how they will source flowers responsibly. Which florists care about sourcing local flowers, and which ones will just go for the cheapest stems without thinking about the environmental and social costs? Are you willing to pay a little bit more for flowers that were produced sustainably?

If you are ready to chat about your wedding now, we would LOVE to hear from you! Together, we'll brainstorm what sustainable flowers we can use, no matter what month you are getting married. You can inquire right here! Or, if you have questions about any of this, please reach out on social media or in the comments below. We're here to help!

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