February 11, 2011

The Ugly Side of the Cut Flower Industry.

Buyer Be Aware:

Pesticides, worker exploitation and environmental degradation.

Where do those lovely Valentine’s Day flowers in supermarkets and florist shops come from? If you live in North America, chances are they come from Latin America, where they were cultivated, selected, arranged and packed by young impoverished women hoping to earn a living wage to support their families. Unfortunately, these women are subject to working conditions set by an industry that seems to maximize profits at the expense of human health and environmental degradation.

The Environmental Working Group reported that cut flower workers are exposed to approximately 100 different kinds of pesticides, often without protective gear.

Many cut-flower workers are exposed to a class of pesticides called dithiocarbamates. In the short-term, dithiocarbamates seem relatively benign; they can irritate the skin and they are not considered poisonous.

But long-term exposure is associated with abnormal thyroid function and reproductive birth defects in animals. Additionally, when they are absorbed internally (which could occur through the skin), they turn into another chemical that is carcinogenic (information from the NJ Department of Environmental Protection).

Pesticide exposure likely contributes to high rates of miscarriage among pregnant cut flower workers and birth defects among their children. Other factors include the long working hours–reportedly as much as 20 hours a day during the weeks before Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day–and the hot temperatures in greenhouses.

Floriculture drains groundwater and pollutes surface water.

The environmental impact of pesticides from the floral industry is also harrowing. The amount of water required to grow cut flowers seriously depletes groundwater resources. Furthermore, the wastewater from floriculture contaminates surface water resources (information from the International Gender and Trade Network).

Cut flower workers are frequently subject to workplace sexual harassment.

A study by the International Labor Rights Forum found that 55% of cut flower workers in Ecuador reported having experienced sexual harassment on the job. Disturbingly, 19% of the Ecuadorian cut flower workers reported that a coworker or superior forced them to have intercourse.

Children comprise an estimated 20% of 60,000 flower workers in Ecuador.

The International Labor Rights Forum reported that the Colombian cut flower industry no longer uses child labor. But the problem remains in Ecuador, and it may continue in other countries as well.

Cut flower workers are given terribly low compensation for their hard work.

Corporacion Cactus surveyed cut flower workers in 2003 and found that most of them barely earned enough to scrape by. Twelve percent of these workers had second jobs.

Watch this video to learn more:

Additional information can be found on the War on Want website.

Do you really like cut flowers?

If there is an organic farmers’ market in your town or city, look for cut flowers there. If you don’t have access to a farmers’ market, look for Organic Bouquet flowers, a brand that is sometimes sold at natural food stores. This company sources flowers from companies that use minimal pesticides as compared to conventional cut flower companies.

Read up on wonderful suggestions for celebrating Valentine’s Day consciously!

To learn ways to take action on this issue, see my Patient Corps post on the subject.

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