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.”


Jaime-Alexis

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.

Enter your name...

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.

Enter your name...

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.

Bridget

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.

an engineer

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.

Katie

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

James

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.

frankenduf

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

Lolo T

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.

Jenny Scala with the Society of American Florists

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 www.nationalfloristdirectory.com.

— Society of American Florists

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Tanis

I was completely floored when I heard the recent comments about giving artificial flowers over fresh flowers! As an organic flower grower in North Mississippi, our carbon footprint is minimal compared to that of flowers grown in Ecuador...There are many local growers of flowers in this country. Check out www.ascfg.org (Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers) for a grower near you. If the public and florists supported locally grown flower farms then you would not have an argument. However it is sometimes very difficult to compete with flower prices coming from places like Ecuador because their production costs is so much less than in the USA, mainly due to labor costs and fuel costs.

Remember, plastic is no substitute for the real thing … and that anyone who tried gifting mom (or the wife) with a bunch of plastic posies would need the health-giving benefits of flowers to make his hospital stay a bit more bearable!

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Anne S

This is what I call a false issue. Carbon footprint is just an idea that leads to bad politics and another excuse for taxation.
Do you want to live like a caveman?

Fair miles not food miles

Writing from the UK where the issue of imported flowers was discussed very publically in 2007: with the then-Secretary of State for International Development announcing "fair miles not food miles" http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.dfid.gov.uk/News/files/pressreleases/valentine-flowers.asp.

Most of the UK's Mother's Day flowers are imported from East African farms in the bellyhold of passenger jets. Depending on your view of carbon footprinting, this could mean a relatively high carbon count or zero as poor low-carbon emitting nations invest their "ecological space" in export agriculture to higher-emitting nations.

With over one million livelihoods in Africa dependent in part of this trade with just the UK, we are challenged to make wise choices and ensure knee-jerk reactions over carbon dont undermine decades of careful support and investment in the integrity of rural farming systems in developing countries. Oxfam wrote a great book on the issue in 2009:

Fair Food Miles: recharting the food miles map. http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/fair-food-miles-recharting-the-food-miles-map-115389.

This campaign has been successful, and in the UK, a significant proportion of the UK population understands this carbon vs livelihoods argument. I dont know whether conditions on the farms supplying the USA have similar livelihood enhancing properties, but i expect there are trade-offs that call for a serious rethink of buying practices in favour of imported, pro-poor, low-ish carbon, flowers.

After all, i am a happy consumer since its what my kids buy me!

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Judy Laushman

Thank you to Tanis Clifton for the reminder that cut flowers ARE grown in the United States. It is not necessary to purchase roses and mums flown in from South America; it's just as easy to visit a nearby farmers' market to find quality cut flowers that were likely cut fresh that morning, and driven about 10 miles. As our growers expand their markets to include grocery stores, restaurants, weddings and events, locally-grown cut flowers will become even more available.

Judy M. Laushman, director, Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers

Margaret L.

My first response, after hearing this report on Marketplace, was to laugh because my mother became enamored of the perfection of silk flowers about 35 years ago and urged her children to get her those instead of fresh cut. In the early years of my marriage, I let my husband know that I didn't want fresh cut flowers because the cat kept knocking over the vase to drink the water. Being one of those people who does care about "food-miles", when I decorate my house with fresh cut flowers, I use in season flowers from my own or another local garden. I never ask for roses in February. And I agree with the person who wrote to Marketplace, criticizing your choice of petroleum-based plastic flowers. Etsy.com has an array of delightful handmade floral arrangements that are made in the USA of non-perishable materials.

VesnaVK

My little boy always wants to buy me bouquets of cut flowers when he sees them at the store. I don't let him, because it's so wasteful, not good for the environment and doesn't seem a good use of the family money -- they'll get icky after a few days and we don't have a good vessel or spot to put them anyway. I told him that for Mother's Day, if he wanted to, he could go to the farmers market and buy me a basket of growing flowers that we can place outdoors and enjoy all season long. Same price range. Beautiful flowers. Contribution to local economy.

Wilsom

Plastic should never be posed as a solution to anything. It's choking the globe. Find another way or just dispense with the flower buying altogether.

If you really care that much about the environment and carbon footprints, don't buy any flowers, plastic, silk, or otherwise.

But probably more importantly don't buy plastic. Ever

Jesse Chan

The people who are concerned about food ethics ARE generally also concerned about the sustainability of the flower industry. I haven't given cut flowers in six years.

If they don't make AS MUCH noise about that, it is because of the scale of the impact. Of all people, an economist should understand that the ethics of carbon and environmental impact is not about purity (in which case we should all stop exhaling carbon dioxide) but about quantity. Weigh the food you consume in a year, and weigh the flowers you give in a year. It's not complicated.

Dubner must be dumber than a rock if he doesn't comprehend this.