– Story by Jane Zatylny Photography by Lia Crowe
The slow-food movement awakened us to the benefits of eating local, seasonal food. Now the same passion is sweeping through the floral industry, and it’s based on a similar principle: sustainability.
“Given the climate change crisis, as well as global social and environmental justice issues, sustainability is here to last—and not just in floristry—but in all aspects of our daily lives,” says Becky Feasby, Canadian ambassador for the Sustainable Floristry Network, a global organization dedicated to sustainable floristry practices.
You may wonder how flowers could possibly be harmful to the environment. After all, aren’t they organic by nature? Well, yes and no. Consider the last floral arrangement that was delivered to your door: more than likely it arrived in a box, with the flowers themselves planted upright in a large block of green floral foam and shielded by layers of cellophane and tissue paper.
In all that excess packaging, those foam bricks are by far the most controversial by-product of traditional floral design. Not only is it non-compostable, the foam is also known to contribute to micro-bead pollution. Then, of course, there are the cellophane and other packaging materials to contend with.
In addition, the flowers in many arrangements, as beautiful as they may be, are sometimes far from carbon neutral. They may have been sprayed with fungicides, imported from South America, flown to Holland and then Seattle, and driven by refrigerated truck to a wholesaler in Vancouver.
“When I worked at a flower shop at the beginning of my career, I saw for myself how much waste was created,” says Kamila Alikhani, owner and creative director of Bloomiér, a zero-waste flower studio in West Vancouver.
“Florists are under a great deal of pressure to keep their stock filled and fresh. If customers don’t see a lot of variety, they might feel that a store’s flowers aren’t fresh. The result is that many flowers are just thrown away.”
Today, Kamila lives and breathes sustainability in her work, purchasing most of her flowers locally, particularly from River and Sea Flowers, an organic specialty flower farm in Delta.
“I am very cautiously hopeful that there is a trend for local flowers,” she says. “I’m hopeful because we’re starting to see more local flower farmers.”
Julie Rémy has seen that growth close-up. She is a local flower grower as well as the owner and lead designer of Fleuris Studio & Blooms, a small floral design studio in Victoria. Julie is also a member of the Island Flower Growers, a cooperative that offers a wholesale flower market and distribution hub for local florists and floral designers. The cooperative recently expanded to include eight sustainable specialty cut-flower growers and a few casual growers.
“Quite frankly, growing flowers is a lot of work, especially when we also design them,” Julie says. “But knowing that I’m doing something good and I’m giving back to the environment is a great reward.”
As it turns out, even the pandemic has contributed to the demand for locally grown flowers, says Becky.
“It’s provided an increased sense of seasonal relativity for both flowers and food. Climate pressures in the global south have also created supply chain issues, which makes locally grown flowers more attractive for many florists.”
Nine ways to go slow and sustainable with your next floral purchase
Forget the foam
The number one thing that all consumers should do is ask for their floral arrangements to be made without floral foam, says Becky.
“The planet will thank you.”
Floral arrangements can be created instead with bundled chicken wire, old-fashioned pin or glass “frogs” or Agra Wool, a new product resembling floral foam made from biodegradable basalt and sucrose. Using chicken wire allows for more gracious, garden-inspired arrangements, says Julie: “It allows the flowers to dance a lot more.”
Just say no to cellophane
Be brave, and say no to wasteful packaging like clear cellophane wrapping, says Kamila. Opt instead for kraft paper or tissue paper and fabric ribbons to wrap bouquets.
“Being sustainable doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful or luxurious,” she stresses. “For instance, we had our own tissue paper printed up with beautiful poems.”
Buy in season
Local flowers are typically available from April through October in BC, although there are many BC flower growers who use heated and precisely lit greenhouses to extend the season, says Julie.
“We have sustainable flowers available the rest of the year to a certain degree, but just a few varieties here and there, and not necessarily in the abundance required to create amazing bouquets and arrangements without having to rely on unsustainably grown flowers, local or not.”
By buying in season, we can learn to anticipate them much like local produce.
“There is a season for each of them, which makes you appreciate them that much more. We don’t have dahlias in the spring, but we do have ranunculus,” says Julie, adding that it’s like buying farm-grown fresh strawberries, for example. “You know at the end of the season that you’ll have to wait until next year.”
Consider a flower subscription
Flower subscriptions are a great way to bring flowers into your life in a very sustainable way. Florists typically provide you with the vase for your first order and often offer or sell pin or glass frogs.
“A monthly, bi-weekly and weekly flower service allows us to source the flowers needed for each set of arrangements. And, with no extra stock on hand, there are no unused flowers to throw away,” says Kamila.
Ask your florists questions about your flowers
Ask where your flowers are coming from, advises Becky.
“Florists should know the place of origin for all of their flowers and should be able to convey this information to their customers.”
Choose fresh or naturally dried flowers over bleached and dyed
Trendy bleached and dyed flowers are often portrayed as sustainable but are anything but, says Kamila.
“Once you bleach the natural stem and dye the flowers, they cannot be composted,” she explains. “When you don’t want them anymore, they have to be thrown away.”
Dried flowers, however, can be an important part of slow floristry, says Julie.
“It is a great way to extend the season sustainably. Some flowers dry beautifully and retain vibrant colours while others can be ‘bleached’ naturally by the sun, instead of using harmful chemicals. Properly dried flowers can add a beautiful texture or pop of colour in a holiday wreath, for example, just when local sustainably grown flowers are harder to come by.”
Buy local from smaller growers who support farm-to-table flowers
Flowers that have been grown locally by a smaller grower who is interested in sustainability have a lot more movement and grace to them, says Julie.
“They’re fresher; they haven’t been shipped all around the world before they came here. They may be more delicate, but they have this amazing romantic look. The stems are freer; it’s not all been standardized for the wholesalers.”
Work with and trust your florist
Florists know what flowers are in season and how to work with your style.
“I like to understand a bit about who my clients are and how these flowers will make their lives more beautiful,” says Julie. “For one client, everything should be white. Another may be going for a memory or a feeling; for example, they want to recall a trip to Mexico with a bold-coloured arrangement.”
Kamila agrees: “My clients trust me to choose flowers for them. They just say, ‘You choose. They’re all beautiful.’”
Celebrate and support the natural world
Flowers are about bringing nature into people’s lives, concludes Julie.
“They’re about celebrating nature and helping the bees and the butterflies and the birds and the environment as much as we can…Flowers are one of the best ways we can do that.”