Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (2024)

Here’s an unromantic question for Valentine’s Day: Can we live without roses? Yes, they are the most popular cut flower around the world, and that’s no wonder; the blooms are stunning. But the daily, nonstop, global race to get just-cut roses from greenhouses to your front door makes them punishing on the environment. Which means it’s time to think differently.

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (1)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (2)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (3)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (4)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (5)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (6)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (7)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (8)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (9)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (10)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (11)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (12)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (13)

Eighty percent of the flowers sold in the U.S. are imported, mostly from Colombia and Ecuador. A rose takes up to 15 weeks to grow. But, as soon as it is cut, a precisely coordinated race begins …

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (14)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (15)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (16)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (17)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (18)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (19)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (20)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (21)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (22)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (23)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (24)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (25)

To keep them fresh, the flowers are chilled into a dormant state and then moved to airports in refrigerated trucks.

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Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (32)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (33)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (34)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (35)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (36)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (37)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (38)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (39)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (40)

At the airport, they are loaded on a plane bound for Miami.

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During the weeks prior to Feb. 14, more than 30 flights will move flowers from Colombia to Miami — every day.

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Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (63)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (64)

About four hours later, the roses land in Miami. They are moved into chilled warehouses and inspected by U.S. customs.

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (65)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (66)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (67)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (68)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (69)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (70)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (71)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (72)

They are then loaded onto refrigerated trucks for delivery across the United States.

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (73)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (74)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (75)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (76)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (77)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (78)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (79)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (80)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (81)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (82)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (83)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (84)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (85)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (86)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (87)Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (88)

When the roses arrive in stores, as little as 48 hours have passed since they were picked.

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (89)

This fast-moving game of romantic commerce never stops. It’s also absurd: The race required to provide a mass-produced bit of nature — at any hour, in any place, for as little as $10 a dozen — contributes significantly to the destruction of nature itself.

Airliners filled with flowers zip around the globe every day. Chrysanthemums from Colombia dash to Japan; roses from Kenya end up in Britain; carnations from Ecuador jet to Russia. Nearly all imported cut flowers go through the same emissions-intensive journey — climate-controlled greenhouses, refrigerated trucks and a long, chilled flight. Fresh flowers are a $34 billion global industry with a massive carbon footprint.

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Compared with other perishables we transport around the world, flowers are perhaps the most damaging to the climate. The reason? Nearly everything else moves by ship, which has 1 percent the carbon footprint of air freight. A 2020 analysis of products sold in British grocery stores, by climate expert Mike Berners-Lee, found that a bouquet of imported flowers has a more significant impact than an 8-ounce steak raised on deforested land in Brazil and consumed in London.

A graphic comparing the environmental impact of commonly imported items in British grocery stores.

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (90)

Environmental impact of imported

items in British grocery stores

Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e)

Strawberries (0.5 lbs.)

8 lbs. CO2e

Flown from South Africa

Bananas (6)

1.5 lbs. CO2e

Bouquet

Dutch roses

and lilies, Kenyan

gypsophila

71 lbs. CO2e

Steak (8 oz.)

Raised on deforested

land in Brazil

39 lbs. CO2e

9 lbs. CO2e

Rice (2.2 lbs.)

Source: Mike Berners-Lee, “How bad are bananas?

The carbon footprint of everything”

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (91)

Environmental impact of imported items

in British grocery stores

Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e)

8 lbs. CO2e

Strawberries (0.5 lbs.)

Flown from South Africa

Bouquet

Dutch roses

and lilies, Kenyan

gypsophila

71 lbs. CO2e

Steak (8 oz.)

Raised on deforested

land in Brazil

39 lbs. CO2e

9 lbs. CO2e

Bananas (6)

Rice (2.2 lbs.)

1.5 lbs. CO2e

Source: Mike Berners-Lee, “How bad are bananas? The carbon footprint

of everything”

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (92)

Environmental impact of imported items in British grocery stores

Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e)

Rice (2.2 lbs.)

9 lbs. CO2e

Bouquet

Dutch roses

and lilies, Kenyan

gypsophila

71 lbs. CO2e

Steak (8 oz.)

Raised on deforested

land in Brazil

Bananas (6)

39 lbs. CO2e

1.5 lbs. CO2e

8 lbs. CO2e

Strawberries (0.5 lbs.)

Flown from South Africa

Source: Mike Berners-Lee, “How bad are bananas? The carbon footprint of everything”

For those who adore flowers, like my mom, this might come as a shock. She expressed concern when I told her about the supply chain. “I see the harm,” she said. “But … they’re so beautiful.”

I feel it, too. Flowers play both real and symbolic roles in our lives. They express emotion in a way few things can: sympathy, love, regret, reverence — or just a simple gesture of care.

We don’t need to give that up.

There’s plenty the industry can do to reduce its climate impact. Greenhouses should be warmed by renewable energy, which should get easier as countries diversify their energy sources. This is particularly important in the Netherlands, the world’s largest exporter of cut flowers. In that country, with its cloudy, northern climate, highly automated and energy-intensive greenhouses are the norm, the majority of which are powered by fossil fuels. Recently, the Dutch government and the horticulture sector agreed to reduce emissions from these greenhouses. It can’t be an idle commitment.

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Most importantly, the sector needs to move away from air freight. Some companies are already experimenting with shipping flowers by sea, an option with substantially fewer emissions. By carefully controlling the atmosphere in the containers, it is possible for cut stems to remain dormant for weeks. Most Western governments have yet to require individual industries to reduce their reliance on air freight, but if lawmakers start issuing those orders, the cut-flower industry should be among the first to be regulated.

Consumers can help, too. Avoid roses, carnations and chrysanthemums, the three species that make up the vast majority of imported flowers. The environmental impact of a bouquet plummets when the flowers are grown locally and are in season.

Flowers to avoid

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (93)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (94)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (95)

Rose

Chrysanthemum

Carnation

Hardy and with a long vase life, the big three species are perfect for cheap mass production and quick delivery around the world. Their success as a globally produced export means American growers can’t compete. Instead, farmers in the United States primarily cultivate specialty flowers such as sunflowers, dahlias, zinnias and snapdragons. They are more delicate and don’t travel well over long distances.

So, buy those flowers with the less-common names. They are grown chiefly in California, but small farms also cultivate them across the country. It’s no guarantee, but it’s significantly less likely they arrived via air.

Better alternatives

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (96)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (97)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (98)

Sunflower

Snapdragon

Peony

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (99)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (100)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (101)

Zinnia

Dahlia

Lisianthus

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (102)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (103)

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (104)

Cosmos

Sweet William

Ranunculus

Another thing consumers can do is to look for the “Certified American Grown” label when buying flowers at the supermarket. This guarantees the blooms were cultivated in the United States. Or better yet? Avoid buying flowers at grocery chains altogether. Instead, request sustainable bouquets from a local florist. Another way to ensure blooms were grown nearby is to purchase them at a local farmers market.

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Ultimately, the environmental harms from the flower industry stem from our desire for cheap and instant gratification — and the brutally efficient willingness of private industry to produce it. The well-being of people and the planet comes second, if at all.

Confronting this requires re-examining our priorities. Yes, a fresh bouquet means instant beauty; it is more sustainable to plant a few tulips or daylilies, or some phlox or daffodils, and they’ll come back every year. Buy favorite flowers only when they’re in season and get to know what is locally available at different times of the calendar. Loosen the compulsion for rock-bottom prices: Pay more for something grown closer. And give up cultural expectations: Romance doesn’t need to be limited to roses.

Because when our effort to bring the beauty of nature indoors is harmful to that beauty itself, it begs that we question the absurdity of our way of life.

Additional development by Yan Wu.

Opinion | Why giving roses on Valentine’s Day — or any day — is really a bad idea (2024)
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