Organic Consumers Association

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Organic Flowers: To Pull a Thorn From the Side of the Planet

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. - The Bonny Doon Garden Company, a downtown flower kiosk here, had signs posted all around it last week for Valentine's Day, but the sales pitch wasn't just about romance.

A bucket held red and fuchsia anemones that were "organic." Ecuadorean roses the size of baseballs were "certified." Roses from a nearby farm were "locally grown."

Was the kiosk selling flowers, or lettuce?

Pesticide contamination doesn't usually come to mind when ordering long-stemmed roses for Valentine's Day. But that is precisely what florists like Bonny Doon are asking their customers to think about. Teresa Sabankaya, the shop's owner, said that when she opened in 2003, "some people would look at me like, 'Are you nuts?' "

Now, at least, "people become engaged," she said. "Forty percent of people will say: 'That's nice. Why would it matter? We're not eating them.' "

True, flowers are rarely eaten. They aren't worn against the skin like organic cotton, or rubbed on the body like soap. Perhaps that's why organic flowers have not been a big business, especially compared with organic fruits and vegetables. The Organic Trade Association says organic food and beverages had $17 billion in sales in 2006. Flowers - a $21-billion-a-year industry - brought in $19 million in organic sales.

That may be changing. The environmentally correct flower is now sold on Web sites like, by small florists like Ms. Sabankaya and by big retailers like Sam's Club and FTD, the floral delivery network, which last year introduced a line of sustainably grown irises and lilies from California and roses from Ecuador.

And as in other industries with increasing demand for green products, the floral industry is debating what is environmentally correct. Should flowers be organic - that is, grown without synthetic or toxic pesticides? Or should the emphasis be on fair trade, meaning that the workers who grow and cut them are safe and well paid? Or should consumers favor flowers grown locally, not flown or trucked over long distances? In other words, what, exactly, is a green flower?

A vast majority of cut flowers sold in the United States, 79 percent, are imported, mostly from countries with mild climates, like Colombia and Ecuador. But only a small minority of flower farms have adopted environmentally friendly methods, like banning toxic chemicals for pest control, said Nora Ferm of the International Labor Rights Forum, an advocacy organization where she is the program director of a "fairness in flowers" public education campaign that began a few years ago.

And few of those farms, Ms. Ferm said, bother with occupational health and safety measures for workers, who can suffer pesticide-related illnesses like headaches, rashes and birth abnormalities among their children.

Ms. Ferm said that "just using less-toxic pesticides would be much better for the environment and the workers."

Whether consumers can be roused to passion about these issues is a challenge that distinguishes the fledgling green-flower movement from other campaigns for environmental awareness. But big environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council have added flowers to their agenda and are encouraging the public to look for floral eco-labels that can now be found in flower shops, grocery stores and other flower retailers.

The labels emphasize different aspects of sustainability. Fair Trade and VeriFlora, two big organizations whose labels appear on flowers sold in the United States, impose strict environmental and labor standards on farms they audit, though they do not require them to be fully organic. Use of pesticides is limited, and workers must be paid fairly; Fair Trade also requires investments in community programs like child care. (Full criteria are at and

Flowers labeled "USDA Organic" - government certification that no toxic or synthetic pesticides or fertilizers were used - are hard to find beyond farmers' markets or online distributors like While organic flowers do exist, mass production would be difficult for most farms because of the investment and technical assistance required, Ms. Ferm said. And more research is needed into ways to control pests and diseases, other experts said.

MICHAEL SKAFF, FTD's director of design and product development, said he decided to stock flowers certified by VeriFlora, which also vouches for quality, rather than organic ones, because some organic flowers have blemishes and smaller, imperfectly shaped petals.

"We want the consumers to be happy at the end of the day," he said. "People buy sustainable flowers because they know they're grown in environments that are good for everybody."

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