A rose is a rose (is a rose)?

Flowers carbon footprint, illustration by Annalisa Papagna

Let’s imagine that you live in a big European city, let’s say Bruxelles. We are in May, and you are commuting home after your workday. Suddenly, an ad on your smartphone reminds you that this Sunday it will be Mother’s day… why not gift her with a bouquet of flowers, maybe roses? Well, you are not the only one.

Roses alone account for nearly half of the global cut flower market. 9 millions of rose stem transit daily at the biggest commercial hub in the world, Aalsmeer in the Netherlands (not far from Amsterdam). Here takes place a daily auction where wholesalers and buyers choose their batch of flowers to be sent to retailers all over Europe, but also to Russia, US and Japan. At no surprise, the Netherlands is the main cut flower importer in Europe, in addition to being a major producer: the well-known tulips, together with lilies, gerberas and chrysanthemums are a staple of the Dutch local production. But the situation is different for roses because most of them arrive in Europe from developing countries, mainly Kenya, followed by Ecuador and Ethiopia. In Kenya, flower farms started to develop in the late Eighties and are mainly located around Lake Naivasha. The vast majority of Kenyan flowers is meant to land in the Netherlands before being dispatched elsewhere, but an increasing number of wholesalers – especially in the UK – are starting to import them directly at the destination of big retailers such as supermarkets (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, etc) Let’s go back to Bruxelles and Mother’s day. If you were given the choice, which rose do you think would be more sustainable, a Dutch one or a Kenyan one? The answer is more complicated than you think, and that’s because of three letters: LCA.

LC what?

LCA stands for Life Cycle Assessment, a scientific method that analyses the whole life of a product to understand its impact on the environment. This method is globally recognized and follows a universal ISO standard. LCA breaks down all the steps in a product’s life “ from the cradle to the grave”: raw materials needed to create or grow the product, manufacturing, transportation, usage, until disposal. At each step, researches observe: which resources do we take from the environment? What do we release into the environment? LCA tell us how much a product contributes to global warming in terms of CO2, ozone depletion, water pollution (eutrophication, ocean acidification), land usage but also human’s health. This method was created initially to make estimates about products’ maximum lifetime, but it’s now widely used in all economic sectors to make comparisons or to identify the most critical steps and make improvements.

Using the LCA method, an independent study by the Cranfield University compared the impact of two batches of 12.000 rose stems, both targeted to the British market: one batch from Oserian farm near Lake Naivasha, the other from the Hook of Holland. Like the majority of plants meant to be sold as cut flowers (where aesthetic plays a crucial role), roses are grown in greenhouses, both in Kenya and in the Netherlands. The answer was counterintuitive but clear. Despite being transported by air cargo, Kenyan roses emit 6 times less CO2 than Dutch. Due to the climatic differences between the Netherlands and Kenya, a Dutch greenhouse uses way more energy (mainly from fossil sources) to provide the necessary heat and light to grow the roses. During its quick trip from harvest to your local flower shop, our bunch of roses needs also to be carefully stored between 3° and 10°C in special refrigeration cells to avoid wilting too quickly, so here goes more energy.

Seasonal, before local

The LCA study cited calculated the average CO2 emissions of the two greenhouses throughout a year, simply because Netherland’s weather is not the same in November and in July, nor are the temperatures and sunlight hours. And here comes the second critical point: seasons. From a month to another, the environmental impact of an agricultural product can change significantly. If you usually cook at home, you are likely to know when tomatoes are in season. But what do you know of dahlias, narcissus, or roses? In Europe, garden roses cultivated in the open air are in bloom between late April and September. However, the varieties of roses that we see in our parks and gardens are not the same used for bouquets: stems may be too short, or they may have little stains or don’t survive long enough in vases (a market standard is around 7 days of vase life). Coming from an equatorial climate, where seasons don’t imply temperature variations, Kenyan roses are a perfect candidate for being sold all year round.

Flower farms social context

The LCA is a reliable way to understand the environmental sustainability of a flower grown in a certain season and in a certain part of the world. But as a downside, it doesn’t take into consideration the social factors. Kenya’s flower industry contributes around 1% to the country Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and flower farms employ around 100.000 people. The majority of them are women, in charge of the most significant and delicate tasks: picking, packing, and value-added processing activities, all of which require intense concentration and long periods of standing. Men, on the other hand, are primarily engaged in spraying, irrigation, construction, and maintenance. Also, most supervisors are men, which implies cases of abuse of power and sexual harassment (a global plague of the agricultural sector, widely reported also in developed countries like the US, Spain or Italy).

When the flower farms boom happened, back in the Nineties, Lake Naivasha started to attract many people from other districts. New urban areas developed very quickly in a chaotic and unplanned way so that most of the housing lacks running water, toilet or chimneys for kitchens. Paved roads are scarce, while public lighting, waste collection and sewage systems are virtually nonexistent. Because of the poor availability of decent housing near flower farms (at affordable rent), many workers choose to leave their family and children behind, in their home area. In fact, despite being a farming area, this zone is so densely populated that it has actually become an urban area, with a higher cost of living compared to Kenya’s rural areas.

Kenya flower export, illustration by Annalisa Papagna

Since independence, Kenya has its own agricultural trade union, called KPAWU (Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union). Thanks to a Collective Bargain Agreement, negotiated every two years, the conditions of flower workers are relatively better compared to other agricultural zones of the world: basic wages are higher than statutory agricultural minimum wage and there are numerous other non-wage benefits including paid sick leave, paid annual leave, paid maternity leave and time off for breastfeeding. Since the flower farms activity is spread evenly over the year (with peaks on Christmas, Valentine day and Mother’s day), most of the workers are permanent and seasonal, with a very little percentage of casual workers. Bigger farms – like Oserian – have also built creches for childcare, schools, and hospitals. However, the situation varies a lot from farm to farm, and more than a half farms have not signed the Agreement. In addition, if the flower wages were quite close to a living wage at the beginning of the 2000s, their value has constantly declined until today, especially for new hires.

Certifications and traceability

European customers’ increasing attention to working conditions in Kenya (and other developing countries) promoted the application of certifications such as MPS, Fairtrade, Max Havelaar, FOSS, and many others. The high number of certifications, labels, and codes of conduct – each one with its own requirements and functioning – makes it hard to identify an “industry standard” from a customer’s point of view. Also, even if the certifications have a positive effect on the working conditions, many growers have the feeling that these codes were imposed from the European buyers without any guarantee of long-term commercial relationships, putting them in a disadvantaged position.

Finally, since cut flowers are not food, European retailers have no legal obligations regarding traceability or informing the consumers about the country of origin. Some big retailers do this on their own initiative (especially for Fairtrade or certificated flowers sold in supermarkets), but if you ask to a generic flower shop, chances are that they will answer that their flowers come from the Netherlands, which in many cases is just the transit country.

Flowers labels and certifications, illustration by Annalisa Papagna

Slow Flowers

Similarly to what happened with the Slow Food movement – aimed at preserving local and sustainable food – a Slow Flowers movement has started to develop around 2014 in the United States. This movement focus on sustainable, mostly organic and seasonal horticulture, encouraging consumers to support their local flower farms. This type of farms is also developing in the United Kingdom, France, and Italy. Their business model is quite different from conventional flower farms, and some of these new farmers are, in fact, halfway between farmers and floral designers. Since the organic cultivation is less productive and winter is a low season, they focus on cultivating and breeding rare and unusual varieties, selling seeds and bulbs, providing training for florists or creating floral arrangements for events.

Following the same philosophy, new types of flower retailers are spreading across Europe. These new florists are the equivalent to the chefs of cuisine du marché, changing their menus/bouquets depending on what’s available at the market in a certain season. The focus has shifted from “customers wanting roses (or another specific request)” to “customers wanting a beautiful and seasonal bouquet”, no matter the type of flower. Some of them reduce their offering to just one type of bouquet per week, delivered by bike to occasional customers but also to regular subscribers. Unexpectedly, they have also contributed to relaunch old trends like dried flowers and herbariums. Of course, this type of floral business is mostly targeted at the high-end market, and cannot be compared to the supermarket-bought bunch of roses and tulips. They are two very different segments of the floral market and they can (and should) co-exist.


If you’ve read until here, you could feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the topic, and you may start to think that we all need a PhD to understand how to buy sustainably… or alternatively that it would be better to ignore all this information altogether because our decisions have no real impact. Well, I can say that I’ve reached my goal. Let me explain. I think that being a conscious consumer means embracing this complexity in full and skipping the easy solutions suggested by marketing and media to make us feel “better” (at least for those who can afford it). It implies digging deeper into –apparently– simple topics and making informed choices based on objective data and our personal situation: do I prefer to support my local farmers or encourage fair trade from developing countries? Do I have a tight or large budget? Which are my tastes in term of flowers, or food, or whatever purchase I have to make? Am I willing to possibly change my habits and discover new products?

There are definitely no wrong or right answers. But if I were you – in Bruxelles, still in doubt about Mother’s day – I would consider peonies, just saying…

You may not know that…

Flowers breeders are half-botanists and half-designers: developing a new plant variety with certain features (scent, size, colour, shape) is time-consuming and needs constant investments. So it’s actually not too surprising that some flower varieties are protected by Intellectual Property Rights. In Europe, Germany is the country whose people spend more on cut flowers, followed by the UK and France. Aalsmeer flower auctions are the opposite of a standard auction: the price on the auction clock start high, then lower down until a bidder accept the current price. Since flowers are highly perishable goods, most of the buyers make their biddings only looking at photos to speed up the operations.


A special thanks to Simona Rescalli (Fior déco) and Azzurra Scerni (Il casale flower farm) for the insights about the Slow Flower movement.


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