I get the impression a lot of people think that eco friendly means that it is good for the natural environment. But, having worked in nature conservation for over 16 years I struggle to think of much that is actually beneficial. Even products that are good for the environment have to be packaged, transported, marketed, have a website and a brand and none of that is beneficial to the environment as a whole. To me then, eco friendly really means ‘less damaging to the environment than other options’. This opens up a whole new set of issues because we then have to think about eco friendly not as an end point or a box that can be ticked with a single decision. Rather it is a gradient and every single decision in making a product affects where it sits on the gradient.
This sounds confusing, got any examples?
How about one from my personal experience. I have been trying to reduce my plastic consumption and after seeing a few articles on the amount of toothbrushes that wash up on beaches I decided to switch to a bamboo toothbrush. Bamboo is quite an eco friendly wood and it biodegrades so hooray! But, the bristles on the brush were still plastic and when my pack of 10 toothbrushes arrived it was in a plastic postal package. Inside, the pack of 10 was in a plastic sleeve and then on opening the box each individual brush had a plastic sleeve on it as well. Despite this the product and all its marketing declared it was ‘eco friendly’. In reality, what I thought was an eco friendly choice generated a whole different set of plastic waste. Overall, I have no idea if swapping one type of non-recyclable plastic in the brush for another in the packaging was better or worse for the environment.
Eco friendly is not ‘a’ thing
The more I think about the more I realise that eco friendly is not one thing you can pick. Eco friendly is about how the thing is made. This again makes it about options and decisions. Going back to one of the examples in my first blog on this topic – growing flowers in heated greenhouses. The heating has a carbon footprint, but this would probably be lower if a biomass boiler is used so that is good. Plus, if they are grown in European countries there are far stricter rules on pesticide use so less pollution to the wider environment. All of this is probably better than growing them further afield and flying the flowers half way around the world. Does this make flowers grown in Europe eco-friendly?
Can we go further? Yes. Even more eco friendly could be to grow them in the UK where we are selling them. Same pesticide rules but even fewer miles to travel. Is it even better again to source locally and from an organic grower? Yes. Controversially, would it be even more eco friendly not to grow any flowers at all and instead look after the land as a nature reserve? Well yes again.
Which of these options is eco friendly? What does it mean if the most eco friendly option is not to do the thing at all!?
So many options
And then of course we could confuse the whole issue with other variables, as in my toothbrush example. Which is more eco friendly, flowers are grown in a solar heated greenhouse, wrapped in paper and then flown to the UK or locally grown flowers wrapped in plastic? What about soils; is it more eco friendly to grow in a weird sterile medium that has to be manufactured, or growing on a peat rich soil which releases carbon every time it is dug or ploughed?
I don’t know if anyone knows the answers but it is just to illustrate the ridiculous range of variables involved.
I hope this demonstrates that flowers can be very damaging to the environment or quite eco friendly. The same is true of almost everything we buy and this makes it difficult for us as consumers. We don’t want to have to research every product before we buy it.
Using standards as a shortcut
To me the best way around this problem is certification and standards. Consumers don’t have to check every product and producers have minimum standards to meet (and potentially can also sell their products at a premium when they do meet them). This then highlights which products are more eco friendly allowing all of us to make informed choices. Personally, I know organic fruit and vegetables are better for the environment and probably taste better as well as having less chemicals in them. If I choose not to buy them because of the premium price at least I know what the difference is.
Over the last couple of decades the food industry has been turned around by these kind of standards (red tractor mark, free range eggs for example) and almost everyone has heard of Fairtrade and organic.
Is there an eco friendly standard for flowers?
The flower industry is not quite there yet. More and more suppliers are working to standards but these are not well known, or even well publicised by the growers themselves. Try FSI2020, the Ethical Trade Initiative or GlobalG.A.P for a start. Even when I was doing the research for this blog I found it difficult to work out what each standard does and how/if it is different from the others.
So, the only thing you can do in the meantime is ask your florist where their flowers are from and how they work. Or check the label if you pick up a bunch at the supermarket; most now have a country of origin on them.
If you would like to make the decision to buy locally and ask the grower personally about how they grow then I can recommend Flowers from the Farm. A network of over 700 independent growers across the UK and an organisation I am proud to be a part of.
That is the conceptual stuff over with, the next blog in the series is about plastic usage and I’ll let you know on social media when it is ready.