A Rose By Any Other Distance: A New Marketplace Podcast

We sent Kai Ryssdal an arrangement of plastic flowers to make our point. Weirdly, the arrangement's container matched his necktie.

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.”

Audio Transcript

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?

Ryssdal: Yes.

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.

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  1. Jaime-Alexis says:

    Although flowers are beautiful, Mother’s Day is meant to show the importance of mothers…so what about gifts that are not only environmentally friendly but also help other mothers around the world? This Mother’s Day, one woman will die every 90 seconds during pregnancy or childbirth. But we can change that. By improving reproductive health care–including family planning and maternal health care–we can save lives. For those who want to learn more, check out Pathfinder International (http://www.pathfinder.org). Great organization working to improve access to reproductive health care in 22 countries around the world.

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  2. Enter your name... says:

    In my family, the general rule is that “Hallmark holidays” aren’t be celebrated with the normal store-bought gifts. So we bake our own chocolate cake for Valentine’s, make handmade cards for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and don’t buy candy during the month of October.

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  3. Enter your name... says:

    Stephen, I don’t think that we’re all obsessed with “food miles”. I think that only a certain type of upper-middle class person is.

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    • Bridget says:

      But we’ve all heard about their obsession with “food miles,” whether we ourselves are concerned with it or not. I think the point is that you don’t hear the same people mentioning “flower miles.” If it is of concern to you, flowers that are just nice to look at for a few days until they die seem a lot easier to cut back on than food.

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    • James says:

      A subject for another post might be the use of issue inflation by certain authors. Having a moderate level of reasonable concern about something which, if changed, might actually improve one’s life in small but measurable ways is hardly obsession.

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    • Erik Dallas says:

      I think we probably are all obsessed with price. When the true price of food/flower/consumer-good miles is not reflected in the price, this creates adverse consequences or hidden social cost. When the green / organic / good item’s priced approaches the price of the bad polluter’s product, then most of us are willing to switch and pay a marginally higher cost to feel good and presume that there was a good return on this small additional cost. But when this “good” product is intolerably more expensive, not only is there the cost question, but also the price of this alternative product could be indicating how wasteful and expensive the method of production is to comply with our arbitrarily set “good” standards. Are our “good” standards promoting bad polluting wasteful expensive behavior that just happens to be compliant with our standards? Not that cost is completely proportional to bad behavior such as oil consumption, but price may be our best proxy indicator to compare potential hidden societal costs of alternative methods a meeting consumption demand, presuming we don’t have the omnipotent ability to quantify the hidden cost of all production processes. An um-provable rule of pollution would be that as cost increases so do hidden societal costs (pollution).
      For a hypothetical comparison, imagine a simple market of energy production from petroleum based products, where the pollution caused by all processes is proportional to petroleum consumption. Presume that we have the alternative of burning petroleum or using a windmill to generate energy. Now further restrict the manufacture of the windmill to the use of petroleum based plastic parts. In this imaginary market the cost and pollution of everything including both forms of energy production is proportional to the quantity of petroleum consumed (burned or used in manufacturing). Thus the cost of wind energy production would directly correlate to the use of polluting petroleum in the manufacture of the wind mills (that is the present value of continuous oil consumption would need to be compared with the onetime manufacture cost of the windmill.) In a low wind environment where supper large plastic petroleum based fan blades would be needed to generate small amounts of power, then it might be more efficient and ecological to just burn the petroleum for energy. This hypothetical model is constructed so that it is easy to see how all expense including manufacturing expense is proportional to pollution. In the real world all cost pollute even if they don’t pollute equally. Even so it is easy to see that if the quantity of only one ingredient is increased or decreased, then the change in cost corresponds to a change in pollution in the same direction.
      Thus even in the much more dynamic real world I would be suspicious that a large change in cost also represents a change in pollution in the same direction, even if they type of pollution. This is not to say that exceptions could not be found, only that all cost should be presumed to carry hidden societal

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  4. an engineer says:

    So, reduce your carbon footprint with reusable plastic flowers. Silk, maybe. I guess once you have chosen artificial, you go with an air freshener to replicate the scent? Or, appreciate the lowered allergy burden. This is some weak coffee.

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    • Katie says:

      The problem with those sprays or fragrances are thats they can be worse to people and the environment. Many fragrances aren’t healthy.

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  5. James says:

    Alternatively, people could simply grow their own. At the moment I have lilacs, trees full of apple & pear blossoms (the cherries are about over), late daffodils & tulips, some early iris & allium, and more.

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  6. frankenduf says:

    “everyone has a mother”- hmm- surrogate child of male partners?!

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  7. Lolo T says:

    Personally, it drives me crazy when people give me flowers, on Mother’s Day or any other occasion. A plant, sure, I can keep that and watch it grow. Cut flowers will be nasty in a few days, even if the nasty carbon footprint to distribute them hasn’t occurred to me. This Mother’s Day, the moms in my life will receive gift certificates to support orgs like Half the Sky Foundation (http://www.halfthesky.org) , which provides the love of family to orphans without families. Somehow that makes the mom in me a whole lot happier than a bouquet of flowers – silk, plastic or real.

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  8. Jenny Scala with the Society of American Florists says:

    There is nothing like a gift of fresh flowers to show mom she is special and appreciated. The ephemeral nature of flowers is what makes them so special. They don’t last forever (not much does!), but the feelings evoked and the experience of receiving fresh flowers can last for years. In fact, 92% of women can remember the last time they received flowers. And fresh flowers are scientifically proven by Rutgers University to create instant delight and increase enjoyment and life satisfaction.

    Flowers come from all over the world, and just around the corner. For those seeking locally grown flowers, we suggest expressing that to your local florist (they access flowers from a variety of sources, both near and far) or visit a local farmer’s market. If you are unfamiliar with florists in your area, you can search for one by city, state and zip code at http://www.nationalfloristdirectory.com.

    — Society of American Florists

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