Sustainable floristry is one of my core values as a wedding florist, and something my clients care about. Of course, you know that wedding flowers come in a dizzying selection of color, scent, and texture. However, few designers note where their flowers came from, who grew them, or how they were grown or designed. Are they sustainable flowers? Are they imported or local? How did they impact the environment? Just like you should care where your food comes from, you should care where your flowers come from. Moreover, there are all sorts of products being sold to us for use in our floral practice. As a result, there are so many environmental implications to how flowers are grown, packaged, delivered, and arranged. For this reason, I want to make sure you know about sustainable floristry, and how we prioritize sustainability in our wedding business.
What is Sustainable Floristry?
First, let's define what I mean by sustainable floristry. I'm going to borrow the definition of sustainability from sustainable agriculture. Sustainable floristry uses practices and methods that are financially profitable, ecologically sound, and socially supportive. Let's talk about each of these in turn.
Sustainable Floristry is Financially Profitable
First, we cannot call any floristry "sustainable" if the farmer or florist cannot make a living. Florists must charge enough to make a profit! Over the last 15 years, we have seen this lack of sustainability, as we've watched the closure of small businesses of all kinds. And in the last few years, supply chain demands, increased wholesale prices, and shipping costs have increased our supply costs even more. Unfortunately, many florists and flower farmers continue to only charge enough to "get by," and are supported by their spouse or an additional job. As a result, sustainable floristry requires that we charge enough to both support our local farms and our families.
Sustainable Floristry is Environmentally Sound
Secondly, sustainable floristry prioritizes using methods that are environmentally sound. There are so many implications for the products and methods that we use in our work, from the flowers themselves to the trash we create. Here are some of the biggest things we are thinking about.
Did you know? About 80% of flowers sold in the US are imported from countries like Colombia, Ecuador, and the Netherlands. This means we fly in 40,000 of boxes daily, with seven flights a day. Consequently, this emits the same amount of CO2 as 219 passenger vehicles being driven for one year, or 180 homes powered for a whole year! And 74% of consumers don’t know the origins of their flowers.
For this reason, the most sustainable flowers are local flowers, since it reduces carbon footprint significantly. As a sustainable wedding florist and member of Slow Flowers, I always prioritize locally grown flowers in my work. When I buy from local farmers, my flowers are driven less than 50 miles to Seattle. Becasue of this, I also design based on the seasons and encourage our clients to be flexible, which allows me to source amazing treasures from our local farms.
Chemical Pesticide and Fungicide Use
Pesticides and fungicides are used widely by commercial cut flower growers, which is why it is so important to know where your flowers come from and how they are grown. A study of the most commonly imported flowers found a total of 107 pesticide and fungicide residues within their sample. In short, these residues included substances that presented acute toxicity, which means that “exposure can generate a direct effect on the nervous system of florists.” Obviously, we florists spend hours per day handling flowers, often with no protective equipment, only to hand them off to customers who touch and smell them.
In addition, there is a TON of evidence on pesticides and their harm to human and environmental health. Here is a good peer-reviewed summary if you are interested in further reading. We never hand off flowers to a client that we would not feel comfortable touching or sticking our noses into.
For this reason, I purchase almost all of our wedding flowers from growers who use organic methods. They try to mitigate the use of organic fertilizers and pesticides in the ways that they practice agriculture. For example, farmers plant things that improve soil nutrients, encourage insects who eat pests, and “trap” pests with plants they enjoy eating. When I cannot source what we need locally, I try to buy from flower farms who have eco-friendly certifications. Encouraging farmers to minimize the use of pesticides and fungicides is a key part of sustainable floristry.
Additionally, if you purchase flowers from a wholesaler - or even a grocery store - you know that flowers almost always come with trash! For example, you might find a cellophane sleeve, a rubber band with polyester on it (so it can’t be composted), and plastic packet of flower food. Sadly, some wholesalers give us this much trash for just five stems. Now think about the boxes they came in (with staples, which is harder to recycle), the plastic bubble wrap, the pallet. It all adds up. With local flowers, we get our flower bunches in buckets, with real rubber bands, and without the cellophane.
However, the biggest trash florists generate by far is in the use of floral foam. Unfortunately, floral foam is a single-use plastic, specifically "fine-celled thermoset phenolic plastic foam." If you've ever handled it, you know it breaks down into dust - plastic dust. A microplastic. Of course, now microplastics have been found in our drinking water, soil, and flesh. Due to these plastics being too small to filter out, we wind up with them lodged in our bodies. Floral foam is not biodegradable, but it doesn't stop there. It also contains phenol and formaldehyde, which is carcinogenic and should be handled with gloves and goggles. In any event, I've never seen a florist wearing protective gear, and they can genuinely be harmed by this stuff. (And so can you.)
Thanks to leaders in our industry, many of us have gone “foam-free,” including my wedding floral practice. As a result, you might see the hashtags “#foamfree” or “#nofloralfoam” floating around, because we realize that floral foam is toxic trash that we should be phasing out. Unfortunately, some florists still use floral foam for every arrangement, installation, and wedding that they do! So, when I decided to start offering classes, my first one was on sustainable wedding designs. I want every florist to know how to make beautiful things without foam.
As mentioned earlier, pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers, and microplastics can all be easily leached into our waterways and water supply due to the floral trade. In Seattle, this is a particular concern because of our dwindling salmon and Orca populations. My floral studio is just a short drive away from the Ballard locks, where we have a salmon ladder. None of this is hypothetical in my business, as we see the impacts of our climate crisis all around us. In sum, choosing not to use harmful pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers, and floral foam has real impacts for the water that we share with the rest of our beautiful region.
Dyed and Bleached Flowers
Have you seen these tulips floating around the internet? They're on every wedding blog now, but tulips do not come in these colors - they are dyed. What's in the dye? No wholesaler will tell us. Is it safe to handle? Who knows! Is it compostable? No clue! This lack of transparency frustrates me. Not only are the stems imported, but they are also dyed with unknown substances, and cannot safely be composted. Of course, people want them, because they're pretty - even if I do not want to work with them.
The tulip on the left annoys me most, because wholesalers are marketing it as a "Brownie" tulip. However, there is actually a variety of tulip called "Brownie" already, and it looks like this. (I know because I grew them.)
Sadly, most people - including many florists - couldn't tell you which is the real "Brownie." And that is a real shame. As florists, it is our job to know botanicals by heart, and to honor and celebrate the beautiful things that nature gives us. Frankly, I don't see dyed and bleached botanicals as a big improvement on what grows naturally. Unfortunately for us, they continue to be in demand, and I continue to refuse to work with them.
You've probably also seen bleached, dried leaves like these, right? To be honest, bleached botanicals freak me out even more. Of course, the wholesalers will not share anything about the process. So, OG sustainable florist and flower farmer Linda D'Arco did some great digging on this. From the documents she found, we believe it involves a lot of scary chemicals including hypochlorites, sodium chlorite, peroxide, hydrosulphites, borohydride, sulphur dioxide, and glycerin. Producers are also using "water soluble plastic" to preserve it. For this reason, I am not touching any of that stuff. We can source beautiful natural dried things that don't trash the planet or our health.
In short, when we think about sustainable floristry, we are always thinking about how to reduce our harmful impacts. In my floral practice, this means that we buy local and organically grown flowers whenever possible, reduce our trash, and never use floral foam.
Sustainable Flowers Sustain Our Communities
The third pillar of sustainable floristry relates to social sustainability. Ideally, sustainable floristry and flower farming should also sustain our communities. For sustainable floristry, this primarily means buying local flowers. There are many other benefits to buying local flowers that we have already covered. However, when you buy local, you support local farmers and everyone else in the local supply chain. In Seattle, buying local means supporting a local co-op, where flowers are priced so that farmers can make a living from their crops. Every purchase means supporting the family farms in Washington who supply the gorgeous materials we use.
Buying local also helps us build community with one another. Above, you can see my friend Alyssa, of Sweet Alyssum Farm. We became fast friends, and now I source a ton of gorgeous and sustainable wedding flowers from her every year. Of course, purchasing from growers like Alyssa also supports rural communities, like the local farm stores who sell products to farmers. Every dollar spent is going back into our local economy, supporting local people. Consequently, this is the kind of commerce we need if we want to sustain our local communities.
When florists use imported flowers, not only are our local dollars diverted to huge import businesses, but we also cannot ensure that workers were not exploited in growing those flowers. Naturally, different countries have different labor standards and enforcement compared to the US. Aside from pesticide exposure, workers may be underpaid, overworked, underage, or fired because they got pregnant or sick—sometimes from the very pesticides used in their work. Sadly, many countries do not have minimum wage laws, and cases of slavery and child labor have been reported in countries like Ecuador, Colombia, India, and Kenya.
Of course, exploitation is not the default at every flower farm abroad. However, it does force us to be smarter consumers and ask about where our flowers are coming from. Florists can and should ensure that their imported flowers are coming from a farm with a fair-trade approach to labor, protections for workers, and fair wages. Buying local flowers eliminates this uncertainty, as well as putting our money back into our community. For these reasons, we will choose local flowers over imported flowers every time.
Sustainable Flowers Are the Future
This is a long read, but I really want you to know that your choices matter. You want your clients to have the best flowers money can buy, which means thinking beyond aesthetics, and looking at ethics. Sustainable floristry is a real movement, with design studios like ours trying to sustain ourselves financially, practice floristry in ecologically sound ways, and support our communities.
As you continue to design (and price) weddings, I would love for you to ask these hard questions. How can you practice sustainable floristry in your business? How can you source more locally, or stop using floral foam? In addition, are you charging enough to pay yourself AND pay a little bit more for flowers that were produced sustainably? In the event that you need a little help, I have two things that might be useful to you.
First, I would love to chat with you, totally FOR FREE. You'll get my whole brain for 15 minutes, no strings attached, and we can talk about any of this stuff. You can sign up right here and I'll send you a calendar invite!
Second, if you are ready to learn how to create flawless wedding designs without floral foam, I would love for you to check out my first class. It's called Sustainable Wedding Designs, and we cover SO MUCH about sustainable floristry - everything from foam-free design methods to compostable packaging. In fact, it's truly jam-packed with everything you need to start introducing more sustainable floristry practices ASAP in your business!