When Ecuadorian flower farmer Esteban Chiriboga made the decision in 1997 to adopt environmentally friendly practices, there was no playbook to tell him what to do. If he stopped using fungicides, what would prevent unsightly mold from forming on the petals? Without insecticides, how would he keep aphids from swarming in the hoophouse? And if he had to give up chemical fertilizers, could he guarantee that his roses would be ready to ship by Valentine's Day?

Answers to these questions were hard to find. At the time, the USDA's National Organic Program was still under development. Chiriboga thought his roses might need a minimal dose of chemicals to pass agricultural inspections in the United States and Europe, but he wasn't sure. Just one bug or one spot of disease could get his entire shipment rejected. And when a grower makes just a few cents of profit per rose, there's not much room for risk.

But Chiriboga was determined. "My decision was to work toward a sustainable production system, both environmentally as well as socially," he says. Chiriboga established a 37-acre farm just south of Ecuador's capital, Quito, called Ecoroses SA. Within nine months of planting, he was harvesting his first crop of roses. Chiriboga also tried to do right by his workers by offering them free meals and transportation, extra medical care, and donating computers to their children's schools. But it would be five years before he received any kind of environmental certification for his practices — and he's still waiting for the market to reward him for having a conscience.

A hundred years ago, most flowers were grown within a few miles of the flower shop where they would be sold. During the 20th century, flower farming moved west as growers realized they could ship their products by refrigerated truck and rail car. Denver was known for its carnation farms, and California dominated the rose market. But in the 1960s, flower farming began to move to Latin American countries like Colombia and Ecuador. The region offered several competitive advantages that American growers couldn't beat: low wages, cheap land, less regulatory scrutiny and a perfect year-round climate for growing staples like roses, carnations and chrysanthemums. Ten years ago, when Chiriboga founded Ecoroses, Americans were importing 60 percent of their flowers. That figure has since risen to 78 percent.

With the rise in imports came heightened attention and criticism from journalists and advocacy groups. Unlike produce, flowers are not tested for illegal-pesticide residues when they come into the country. The logic behind this decision — people don't eat flowers, so who cares how they're grown? — didn't satisfy groups like the International Labor Rights Forum. In 2003, they launched the Fairness in Flowers campaign to bring attention to a host of problems on flower farms: pesticide exposure, sexual harassment, child labor and the inability of workers to organize. "There have been tangible results in other sectors, with other green or Fair Trade products like coffee and chocolate," the project director, Nora Ferm, says. "We can hope for similar positive impacts [for flowers]."

From the beginning, however, the goal has not been to shut the flower farms down. Rather, activists have sought means by which farmers could improve their practices. One strategy is to create a certification program that audits environmental and labor standards. "Workers are often found in rural areas where there are few employment alternatives," says Ferm. Instead of calling for boycotts, the goal is to use market pressure to encourage "safe, stable, and fair working conditions."

A similar discussion had been taking place in Europe since the mid-1990s in response to conditions on flower farms in Africa. As a result, several European countries developed their own eco-label programs for flowers. Those independent efforts produced a patchwork terrain of eco-labeling programs, some with stricter standards than others. Germany's Flower Label Program (FLP) is one of the best. That's how, in 2003, Chiriboga's farm came to be certified, even though only 10 percent of his roses are sold to Western Europe.

The dilemma that Chiriboga and growers like him face is that they are sincere about their desire to transition to more sustainable practices — some of them live on their farms and watch their grandchildren play in the greenhouses — but they're not sure how to get the message out to consumers in the faraway countries that import their products. If a farmer ships flowers to several different countries, participating in the eco-label programs of each can mean complying with different standards, paying multiple fees, and participating in several independent audits every year.

Germany's FLP might have been the best of several less-than-ideal choices for Ecoroses, but Chiriboga was still glad to get the label. It turns out the Germans are surprisingly environmentally aware and enthusiastic consumers of flowers. The FLP program helped Chiriboga bring his farm up to speed by requiring health care for workers, reforestation efforts, and other improvements.  "I have to admit," he says, the certification process "forced us to be better organized."

Today a farm in Latin America might participate in Germany's FLP, along with Florverde, a green label founded by Asocolflores, the Colombian flower growers association, or its Ecuadorian counterpart, FlorEcuador. It might also be certified through Switzerland's Max Havelaar program, a Dutch program called MPS, or the international Fair Trade label, among others. Each program has different specifications, from requiring minimal compliance with local laws to forbidding the use of any pesticides deemed hazardous by the World Health Organization to requiring farms adhere to an international code of conduct for their workers.

"One big step," Chiriboga says, "would be to try to standardize the certifications into one or two that can be well promoted to consumers." He added that coming up with a single worldwide certification would save him money, too. "My flowers do cost more to produce," he says, "and we do not get a higher price for that. We hope at some point in the future that we will." In 2006, Ecoroses received certification from VeriFlora, the first eco-flower label in the United States. The label is managed by Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), which certifies a number of products, including lumber through the Forest Stewardship Council and fish through the Marine Stewardship Council. VeriFlora's standards include a quality component to ensure the flowers won't wilt after a couple of days in the vase. They also submitted their standard to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). With ANSI approval, VeriFlora's definition of sustainable flower production may become the gold standard in the US and possibly around the world. So far, SCS has certified more than 40 farms internationally, representing more than 750 million stems per year.

VeriFlora is also set apart from other eco labels because it requires growers to either be organic, or to develop a plan to transition to organic production. But Alexander Winslow, SCS's communications director, doesn't think organic is enough. "Why be satisfied with organic?" he says. "The reality is that organic only goes so far. It doesn't address energy efficiency. It doesn't address worker health or community benefits. We are absolutely convinced that sustainability is a stronger vehicle for achieving environmental and social good. The ultimate goal is to move toward organic farming practices, but that only goes so far in addressing the environmental impact of the product from a life cycle perspective."

VeriFlora is also making an effort to certify farms of all sizes throughout North America. That goal is particularly important to Tom Leckman, president and CEO of Canada's largest floral distributor, Sierra Flower Trading. "We wanted to have a label that involved the local growers," he says. "We felt there was a little too much finger-pointing at Latin America. It's not just the Colombians who sometimes have an issue with labor laws." Now, about 30 percent of the flowers Sierra sells are certified through VeriFlora. But before VeriFlora came on the scene, Sierra also had to wade through an alphabet soup of floral certifications. The company initially only bought flowers certified through Germany's FLP or Colombia's Florverde. "There are too many labels," Leckman says. "We can't go to the consumer and keep introducing a new name every two or three years. So we created our Sierra Eco seal, and no matter where [our flowers] come from, that's how we market them."

As the flower industry continues to grapple with what a sustainable future might look like, florists and grocery stores are wondering how their customers will respond. VeriFlora-certified bouquets have started showing up at supermarket chains, where about half of cut flowers are purchased. Karen Christensen, global produce coordinator for Whole Foods Market, reports that the company buys VeriFlora-certified tulips and lilies from Sun Valley Floral Farms, a large California grower, and organic roses from a farm in Ecuador. "Right now we're buying pretty much everything [the Ecuadorian farm] can produce," she says. Christensen reports that Whole Foods is also partnering with TransFair USA to sell Fair Trade–certified flowers under the Whole Trade Guarantee program. But she's not sure yet what consumers will prefer. "It's going to be an incremental process to turn this industry green," she says.

Some individual florists have made a conscious decision to go green. Christine Saunders, owner of the Spiraled Stem Floral Design in Southern California, offers a full sustainability package for her eco-conscious wedding and event clients that includes not just the flowers but also non-petroleum candles, a container rebate program, recycling, and reduction of waste.

Saunders says there is a growing interest in green weddings and events, particularly within Los Angeles' celebrity community, but that her colleagues are still figuring it out. "I know a florist who just does flowers for celebrities' homes," she says. "He told me that they are all asking him to go green. He didn't know how. He thought it would mean that he would have to stop using flowers and only use potted plants," Saunders says. "I gave him all my sources and even walked him around the wholesale market and pointed out the eco labels. Those flowers are out there, but a lot of people just don't know where to start."

Story by Amy Stewart. This article originally appeared in Plenty in February 2008. The story was added to MNN.com in January 2010.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Budding movement
The U.S. market for imported flowers is huge -- make sure the ones you're buying were responsibly grown.