It's possible to woo your sweetheart and give the Earth and your piggybank a break -- all in one colorful shot. Just skip buying roses the old-fashioned way for Valentine's Day this year. Instead, if possible, choose flowers grown locally on regional farms. It turns out that standard cut flowers, in addition to being terribly overpriced this time of year, are often about as ungreen as something that comes out of the ground can be. A shower of chemicals that keep your buds unblemished and pest-free, long-distance shipping that has to happen while the flowers are fresh, plus a flood of water (often in places where water is scarce), contribute to a sizable environmental dent in the Earth. Last year,
Carbonfund.org estimated that flower companies expend 9,000 metric tons of carbon emissions just to transport Valentine's bouquets from farm to customer. The problems with those romantic long-stems start far, far away, in Columbia and Ecuador, from where 87% of the roses sold in U.S. come, according to the Progressive Policy Institute. The Food and Drug Administration reports that overall, 67% of the cut flowers sold in the U.S. come from overseas: carnations from South America, lilies from Costa Rica, tulips from Holland and orchids all the way from Thailand. The Ecologist Online notes in its blog that because we don't eat flowers the FDA isn't too concerned about the chemical residue they might carry when they hit our ports. Harboring things like bugs or fungi, however, can easily stall these pricey perishables at customs. So flowers cultivated overseas are inundated with fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and nematicides, which find their way into the local eco-systems. The World Resource Institute says they are linked to a host of health problems for industry workers and their families and communities. Then there's the problem of getting the blooms from these far-flung fields to your front door. It usually involves a refrigerated truck from farm to airport, a cargo flight to the US, and then more transport by refrigerated trucks from airport to wholesaler, to florist, to you, or perhaps they'll finish their journey overnight via Fedex ( FDX), UPS ( UPS) or DHLplanes and trucks. 1800Flowers.com ( FLWS)has decided to opt out of responsibility for the environmental impact of moving flowers all over the world. It offers a "fresh from our growers " collection that overnights flowers from points around the globe. You can order a cluster of 20 white tulips from the Netherlands for $65 and two dozen pink roses from Ecuador for $60 and have them on your doorstep the next day -- kinda global-economy cool -- until you think about the extravagant amount of fuel spent to pretty up a room for a few days. Asked by email if the company has any idea of the carbon footprint generated by all this plane and truck travel and if it has plans to address that, a spokesperson said the questions weren't applicable to the company. "The third party carriers that we partner with adhere to green guidelines," she wrote. She says that the work these other companies are doing to reduce their carbon footprint, "earns the respect of customers." If that strikes you as a pretty underwhelming strategy for tackling its environmental impact -- and it should -- there are options for buying organic and fair trade flowers, and for simply buying closer to home. Whole Foods ( WFMI), Trader Joe's and even regular supermarket chains like Giant Food Stores sell alternative buds. You'll get flowers grown without all the chemicals and with more responsible water use. But you'll most likely pay a premium over already expensive conventional flowers, particularly for the Fair Trade option, where prices include an 8% to 12% markup that's earmarked for community development. And they still carry the carbon imprint of all that speedy long-distance travel.
Gerald Prolman, chief executive of
Organic Bouquet, said in an email, "Flowers, whether imported or sourced domestically, use fuel to be transported from farm to market. Progressive companies are doing what they can to offset the carbon emissions from fuel use." Organic Bouquet is working with the Climate Trust to determine its total footprint so that it can buy offsets to compensate for all that shipping. Prolman says the company plans to be carbon neutral by the end of the year. But if like me, you'd rather see companies reduce their footprint than compensate for it, you might forego those flawless red roses altogether this year and choose flowers that are grown domestically. Organic Bouquet sources tulips, gerbera daisies and lavender from California. Meanwhile, California Organic offers anemone, shocking pink protea and long-stemmed calla lilies during the winter for prices ranging from $45 to $80. But be aware, even in temperate California, winter flowers might come from hothouses, not open fields. The environmental impact of heating those hothouses and shipping cross-country might not be that much less than growing flowers outdoors in Ecuador and shipping them northward. Consider the debate over local greenhouse versus African-grown farm flowers that's been continuing in Europe. While Prolman can argue the benefits of sourcing its product abroad, Organic Bouquet is nevertheless planning to introduce a program this summer that gives customers around the country the option of choosing local flora. In the meantime, if you live in a temperate region you might head to your local farmers market and pick up a bunch of flowers that were grown by the people selling them within a few hours of where you live. Treehugger touts the advantages of doing so. Among them: Prices are reasonable, and you might find some local specialties that mass-market florists don't offer. If you live in the wintry north or don't have a farmer's market you can seek out area farms and hothouses that will sell to the public. Either way, you'll cut out the long distance travel and the price-boosting middlemen.