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Fairtrade flowers (generally roses) are now a common sight in UK supermarkets, but while this may seem like another positive step along the road towards Fairtrade for everyone, market forces are combining to produce a situation that is anything but equitable.

The cut flower industry is a massive one. In the UK alone the flower market is worth £1.5 billion; it is a profitable market too, with opportunities for significant mark-ups somewhere between the farm and the hopeful boyfriends' and guilty husbands' pockets. However, it is the one-off days when everybody buys flowers (for example, Mother's Day, Valentine's Day) that cause the biggest problems.

Most of the non-Fairtrade flowers are grown in Africa and Latin America (posing another problem - the environmental cost of flying those flowers to where they are sold) where workers can face 18 hour days on compulsory overtime cutting and preparing the blooms to make sure every girl gets her rose on Valentine's Day. Pesticide use is not necessarily as controlled as it is in the UK, and workers on these intensive farms run the risk of ruining their health for wages that won't even allow them to put their children through school. However, most of the farms now operate self regulation and have comprehensive health and safety precautions including protective clothing and health checks for workers.

So, clearly a more ethical alternative had to be found. However, with supermarkets in control of the Fairtrade flower market the market is not nearly as beneficial to smallscale farmers as, say, that for Fairtrade bananas or coffee. Tescos, for example, in its bid to be the biggest supermarket retailer of Fairtrade goods (a good example of customers voting with their wallets and forcing a change in policy) stocks Fairtrade flowers. But are its suppliers a large and diverse group of family farmers who would otherwise be left behind by market forces?

No, Tescos gets its fairtrade flowers from only two producers, neither of whom could possibly be classed as 'small scale'. Oserian, a Dutch company that employs 4,500 workers, and Finlay Flowers, who employ 2,500 workers, both grow flowers intensively in Kenya. The extra money you spend to ensure your flowers are Fairtrade should all trickle down to the workers. The premiums paid for fairtrade flowers should be passed through to worker's comittees who have to tell the Fairtade Foundation about the schemes the money is spent on. These schemes can either benefit the workers on the farm itself or the local areas. Past schemes financed from flowers have repaired bridges for the improvement of all local workers, to mealie maize production units for workers to produce flour for onward sale to all local inhabitants.

What needs to be addressed is the rate that is paid to the producers as the fairtrade premium. In the UK this is less than in continental Europe. Tesco allegedly refused to join the scheme if it had to pay the European rates.

The Fairtrade Foundation Fairtrade Foundation: Roses argues that every product that carries the Fairtrade mark is assessed not only for the quality of the product but also the standards of the working conditions the produced it. Progress has been made, and is being made, to improve the lives and rights of these workers, and it is still better to buy Fairtrade flowers than not.

But there is still the huge problem of compulsory overtime at peak demand periods. And if everyone in the UK feels obliged to buy flowers for Mother's Day, that situation is unlikely to change. Furthermore, Fairtrade flowers in the UK are currently only available in supermarkets, who naturally take a slice of the price to add to their profits. Interflora in the UK was offered Fairtrade flowers but declined the opportunity in 2003/4. Would it be better to buy local flowers from your local greengrocer's or try to help the workers in Africa by buying Fairtrade?

However, the flowers you buy in any flower outlet, unless strictly seasonal, will probably have been produced in Dutch greenhouses, using vast amounts of lighting, heating and chemicals. This leaves a bigger carbon footprint than the "air miles" from trans continental transportation. Although the African flower producers are large scale they are not "intensive" utilising only the benefits of their climate. Oserian does have some heating, but is an innovator in only using geo-thermal sources. Finlay Farms in Kericho does not use heating in its flower production, but does have its own hydro electric scheme, and also sustainable and renewable forests, which are worked by its own herd of elephants to provide fuel for its tea drying factories and the benefit of its workers. Sometimes the size of these enterprises does allow it to adopt sensible and "green" policies.

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