The Unique Challenges of Fair Trade Flowers

The following post was submitted by Alaina Paradise, owner of One World Flowers, as part of Fair Trade USA’s Fair Trade Month awareness campaign. Click here to see the original post on Fair Trade USA’s blog.
A woman collects roses at Minaye Flowers Plc flower farm in Debre Zeit, Oromia, Ethiopia, on Friday, May 9, 2008. Thanks to a government effort to create jobs that is supported by the World Bank, Ethiopian exports of cut flowers have grown to a $125 million industry, up from $159,000 six years ago. That places the country as Africa's second-largest flower exporter, after Kenya. Photographer: Jose Cendon/Bloomberg News

Fair Trade CertifiedTM flowers were first introduced to the US market in 2007 when TransFair USA (now Fair Trade USA) began licensing importers for the program. The addition of Fair Trade flowers to the US market was an incredible accomplishment for the producers and licensees who chose to participate in the program. It presented a great opportunity to grow sustainable sales in a new market and make an even bigger impact for floral workers worldwide. The Fair Trade flowers program has seen a good amount of success since its beginnings, but has not yet been able to win the wide-scale market awareness and producer participation as other products such as Fair Trade coffee, fruit, and tea.

Some of the reason for the slower development of the program can be found in the unique challenges that are faced by producers as well as importers ofFair Trade CertifiedTM flowers. Two of these challenges are presented below:

Toxic Perfection

One industry analyst correctly observed that consumers are perfectly willing to accept an apple with a spot or two, and coffee is never seen in its raw form, but consumers demand flawless, perfect flowers.  The result of this demand is increased use of pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals to produce faultless flowers.

A 2009 case study from the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization found that over 120 chemicals are used in Ethiopia’s floriculture industry, 15 of which the World Health Organization classifies as carcinogenic. This number is not much higher than what is found in other major floral-producing countries such as Ecuador, Colombia, and Kenya, where local governments often turn a blind eye to the use of harmful chemicals and pesticides that have long been banned in the United States.

Insecticide Use on a Non-FT Farm

The Fair Trade flowers program bans the use of over 100 of the most harmful agrochemicals and requires farms to learn entirely new growing practices. This is no small task to teach. The benefits of these changes cannot be overstated, but they do create a ‘barrier to entry’ for farms that consider transitioning to Fair Trade CertifiedTM growing practices. This limits the reach of the program in many areas where chemical-induced production is seen as the norm.

On the Move

In addition to wanting perfect flowers, consumers want their bouquets to last for many days. One of the unique challenges to Fair Trade flower importers is the logistics and timing of importing a highly perishable product.  Unlike coffee, tea, clothing, or even fruit, flowers must be hydrated and kept cool for their long journey into the country and even up until delivery to the final consumer.

From the perspective of a licensed importer, this can be a challenging task. Many importers bring Fair Trade flowers in to large warehousing facilities where they are hydrated, cooled, repackaged, and then shipped to a florist or final customer. This method can cut 3 to 5 days off the lifespan of those flowers in a customer’s home or office.

Other companies like One World Flowers have developed a direct-ship logistics solution to getting flowers to customers. In this case, flowers are cut and hydrated at the farm, and they arrive directly to the consumer within 48 to 72 hours later. There is a significant cost associated with direct shipping in this way, but the benefits include a much longer lifespan for the flowers and a higher quality product that hasn’t experienced as much interference as warehoused flowers.

Logistics of Flower Shipping

Despite these challenges and many others, Fair Trade flowers in the US have made a great impact and resulted in many changes on floral farms, especially in South America. The importers and producers that are committed to the program continue to see Fair Trade sales rise, even in the depths of America’s economic woes. Take a moment during Fair Trade Month to help the Fair Trade flower movement grow while brightening someone’s day at the same time.

Published on Monday, October 15, 2012