Massacring Valentine’s Day

Now environmentalists are campaigning against 'flower miles', showing that even gifts between loved ones have been added to their killjoy hitlist.

Peter Smith

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Topics Politics

Chaps, if you forget Valentine’s Day on Wednesday (yes, that’s tomorrow – public service announcement over) then the British political party the Liberal Democrats and their environmentalist friends have handily come up with the perfect excuse to make to your loved one: ‘flower miles’.

‘Flower miles’ is a development of the more familiar ‘food miles’ concept, where environmental campaigners take the mileage food travels before it reaches the consumer as a broad indicator of its environmental ‘impact’. With cut flowers now being imported from a variety of countries, it seems the Valentine bouquet is the latest consumer product to be subjected to the miles method and measured in crude ethical-impact fashion.

Norman Baker, environmental spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, first raised concerns over flower miles topically enough this time last year, when figures showed there had been a huge increase in the number of cut flowers transported to the UK from locations as far flung as Colombia, Kenya and Sri Lanka.

For the period 2001 to 2006 the volume of cut flowers from Kenya alone increased from 10,000 tonnes to over 16,000 tonnes (1). Kenya is now the second biggest exporter of flowers to the UK after Holland, followed by Colombia and Spain. Latest government figures suggest that that a typical Valentine’s bouquet, including roses from Ecuador, tulips from Holland and listanthus from Mexico may have travelled up to 33,800 miles to reach Britain (2). (As one commentator has pointed out, given that the circumference of the Earth is 25,000 miles, this is rather peculiar…. Do some bouquets go around the world a couple of times before landing in the local florist?)

While many of us might consider the growth in international trade an opportunity for developing countries to benefit from the global economy, environmentalists are concerned with the carbon emissions associated with flying in so many flowers to the UK. In 2004 it was estimated that importing Kenyan flowers produced more than 30,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (3). With carbon emissions the be-all and end-all of any discussion these days, a more internationalised world and jobs in developing countries are seemingly unimportant considerations compared with the catch-all category of ‘environmental impact’.

Norman Baker was surely stating the obvious when he pointed out that people buying their loved one flowers ‘don’t think they might be contributing to carbon dioxide emissions’; he suggests that ‘consumers should be choosing flowers that cause minimum damage to the environment’ (4). It seems that not even the spontaneous act of bouquet-buying is exempt from green moralising now. As an aside, from his list of interests it seems that Baker’s hobbies include singing in a Sixties rock band: from ‘flower power’ to ‘flower miles’ shows a sort of consistency of sorts, I suppose (5).

Environmental groups have been quick to add their voice to the ‘flower miles’ discussion. Vicki Hird of Friends of the Earth says: ‘Our concerns are in terms of greenhouse gases and the use of chemicals and water. We don’t wish to be killjoys because receiving flowers can be lovely, but they are dead. Why not grow your own gift?’ (4) Nice of Friends of the Earth to paint such a rosy picture of the quintessential Valentine’s gift. As for growing your own, not all of us have green fingers – and some of our partners would be miffed if they noticed that their flowery gift was cut from the plantpots on the balcony or in the garden.

On a more serious note, the discussion of flower and food miles raises questions about employment and resource use in developing countries. Export crops provide trade and jobs in the developing world, although the terms and conditions of these jobs could certainly do with being improved. The focus of environmentalists on the alleged dangers of product transportation problematises the further integration of developing countries into the world economy, which could help to lift such countries out of poverty. In place of such integration, environmental campaigners offer only a micro-project here or an eco-project there.

If we encourage consumption of only products produced or grown locally, the outcome can only be that developing countries will have a more marginal relationship to world trade. Flower miles might be out, but the environmental alternative offers subsistence farming and back-breaking labour miles as the alternative. Where’s the campaign against that?

Not content to lecture us on our over-consumption at Christmas, the flower-miles focus makes Valentine’s Day the next celebration on the environmental killjoy hitlist. With summer holidays already declared planet-destroying and unsustainable, what’s next? ‘Easter egg miles’?

As food miles make that candlelit dinner for two a non-starter, and with Valentine’s Day fast approaching, where does that leave us? What with Champagne (‘bubble miles’ from France), chocolate (‘cocoa miles’ from South America) and even lingerie (‘knicker miles’ from Italy if you’ve got some class, from China if you really don’t care about the miles) it seems that typical Valentine’s Day gifts all fall foul of green moralising. I suppose you could try a pint of regional real ale and a pack of pork scratchings in your local pub, which would avoid the ‘Valentine’s Miles’ tag and show that you really care about the environment. If you opt for such an outing, good luck. You’ll need it.

(3) Say it with flowers, but only if it won’t cost you the Earth, The Times (London), 30 January 2006

(4) Say it with flowers, but only if it won’t cost you the Earth, The Times (London), 30 January 2006

(5) Norman Baker’s profile, Liberal Democrats, Who’s Who?

(6) Valentine bouquet that has come 33,800 Miles to reach London, London Lite, 9 February 2007

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Topics Politics

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