Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “A Rose By Any Other Distance.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)
With Mother’s Day coming up, we thought it’d be interesting to look at the cut-flower industry. Americans spend about $12 billion a year on them. Mario Valle, a wholesaler at the L.A. Flower District, tells us that Mother’s Day is easily his biggest day of the year: “It’s 30 percent of my year. Everyone has a mother!”
So where do all those flowers come from? It turns out that about 80 percent of all cut flowers sold in the U.S. are imported. The leading producers are Colombia, Ecuador, and Costa Rica, places where the sun shines roughly 12 hours a day, year-round. The flowers must be refrigerated immediately after they’re cut; most are flown to the Miami International Airport, which handles about 187,000 tons of flowers a year, and then trucked to their destination.
We live in a day and age where people are obsessed with “food miles” and the carbon footprint of everything they consume. So where is the outrage over these globe-trotting Mother’s Day flowers? If we ship food halfway across the planet, at least we eat it; it’s our sustenance. But flowers just get looked at, and then tossed. They seem to have somehow escaped the environmental scrutiny that accompanies what we eat, how we transport ourselves, etc. Perhaps it’s the halo effect from the flowers themselves? They’re so pretty, after all.
You’ll hear all about this in the podcast, including a comparison of cut flowers and Christmas trees (another big, non-edible crop). You’ll also hear from Dartmouth geographer Susanne Freidberg, who has appeared on this blog before and is currently studying global trade and how firms try to calculate carbon footprints. In terms of cut flowers, she thinks that plastic might be a better alternative:
“They’re so lightweight, they wouldn’t need to be flown anywhere. They wouldn’t decompose and produce greenhouse gases in any landfill. There’s probably no slave labor because the production of the plastic flowers is probably all mechanized. And there’s the endless lifespan — so there are possibilities for regifting them.”
We also spoke with Will Masters, the agricultural economist who once wrote a poem about the price of kiwi fruits. We unfortunately didn’t have room in the podcast for the sharp and entertaining Masters, but in an interview he made the point that a) a carbon tax would help the price of goods reflect their true cost; and b) even with a carbon tax, it may be that, given the way agriculture works, it may still be more efficient to ship in flowers from far away (just as we ship in food from far away), even from a greenhouse-gas perspective:
“The cost of that carbon emission would be built into the farmer’s decision in Guatemala or Colombia to grow the roses the way they were growing them. The air freight company’s decision of what kind of airplane to put them in. The airport’s decision on the receiving end about what kind of warehouse — how well insulated it would be — and so on and so forth. All of that would build in the price. And therefore, when you went to the florist and you had a $6.99 bouquet that was imported versus a $7.99 bouquet that was locally-grown, you would be seeing in that price, reflected the full cost of all the inputs. Then you trust prices again. Prices mean what they say and that’s the market that we really need.”
Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. Every two weeks, we're talking with Stephen Dubner, co-author of the books and blog of the same name, about the hidden side of everything. Dubner as always, good to talk to you.
Stephen Dubner: Great to be here Kai. Hey, seems like you talk about your mom on the show quite a bit, am I right?
Ryssdal: I don't know, maybe.
Dubner: And it sounds from what I hear, you have a fairly loving relationship, I'm also right on that?
Ryssdal: No. 1, she's listening, so watch yourself. And No. 2, yeah, we get along, me and mom.
Dubner: I'm just thinking, with Mother's Day coming up, two Sundays from now, I'm guessing you're thinking about maybe sending her some flowers. Yes?
Ryssdal: OK, two things: 1) It's all I can do to remember to get my wife flowers on Mother's Day, let alone my own mother; and 2) The dirty secret which I will deny if you repeat it -- my wife actually does the flowers for my mom.
Dubner: Ah, but she gets something?
Dubner: Well, she is not alone. Every year in the U.S., we spend about $12 billion on cut flowers alone -- Mother's Day is obviously a huge part of that. But here's something you may not know, Kai: about 80 percent of these cut flowers are imported, mostly from equatorial countries that get 12 hours of year-round sunlight.
Mario Valle is a flower wholesaler in Los Angeles; he handles about two million flowers a year. Here's how they get to him.
Mario Valle: Anything that's coming out of South America is generally air-freighted into Miami, then it's trucked over to California.
Ryssdal: Really? They fly to Miami and then drive it to here?
Dubner: And I do not want to rain on your mother's parade or anybody's mother's parade, but there is something going on here. We live in a day and age where people are obsessed with "food miles" and the carbon footprint of everything we consume. So if that's the way we're going to be, here's what I want to know: Where is the outrage over these globe-trotting Mother's Day flowers? I mean, if you ship food across the planet, at least we eat it -- it's our sustenance. But flowers? You look at them for a couple of days and then plop, into the trash!
Ryssdal: So this is you up on your high horse here, you are now killing all the joy and glory that is Mother's Day and cut flowers in this country?
Dubner: Kai, it is not my nature to scold. I hope you know that by now. But I do find it curious that cut flowers have somehow escaped the environmental scrutiny that accompanies what we eat, how we transport ourselves. It may be a halo effect from the flowers themselves -- I mean, how can you hate on roses and tulips, they're so pretty!
Ryssdal: So here's the thing -- if I don't, well let me rephrase that -- if my wife doesn't send my mother flowers for Mother's Day, then I'm in deep and serious trouble.
Dubner: I don't want that to happen. It's the last thing I want to happen. So let's look to a different holiday for a potential solution: Christmas. Every year, we buy about 35 million Christmas trees in this country, about $2 billion worth. Again, we're talking crops that are harvested and transported solely for our viewing but not eating pleasure. But every year, the share of artificial Christmas trees rises -- and now we're up to about 40 percent fake Christmas trees. Meaning there's no need to grow and transport another tree next year, or the year after.
Ryssdal: Wait now, stop -- I'm not doing a fake Christmas tree, I'm just not going to do it.
Dubner: Let me try to persuade you of a little something. Kai, you have a little package there in the studio. We sent you something. It's a good time to open it up.
Ryssdal: OK. No. 1, I'm a little disappointed because it's clearly not beer, but all right, that's fine. Is this a corsage? Or something equally sensitive?
Dubner: What do you think? How do they look?
Ryssdal: They look lovely. They're yellow roses.
Dubner: And what are they made of?
Ryssdal: Yeah, they're not real.
Dubner: They're plastic flowers. And they're beautiful, right? They do wonderful things with plastic these days. So here's the thing, we may associate flowers with nature and plastic with the opposite, but is in fact a very simplistic view of how the world actually works.
Here's Susanne Freidberg, she's a Dartmouth professor and author who's been studying how carbon footprints are calculated. Here's what she thinks of the idea of giving plastic flowers instead of real ones.
Susanne Freidberg: They're so lightweight, they wouldn't need to be flown anywhere. They wouldn't decompose and produce greenhouse gases in any landfill. There's the endless lifespan, so the possibilities for regifting them.
So Kai, listen: If you really love your mother -- and I'm not implying you don't, by the way -- I want you to think about sending her, or having your wife send her some plastic flowers this year. If you want, you can even regift this bouquet, like Prof. Freidberg suggests. Because I know you're a bit of a cheapskate as well.
Ryssdal: Hey! I am, actually, how did you know? Stephen Dubner, our Freakonomics correspondent. He puts out a podcast, too -- you can get that on iTunes and hear more at Freakonomics.com. Dubner, we'll talk to you in two weeks. See ya man.
Dubner: See you Kai.