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Every Rose Has its Thorn: Exposing Colombia’s Cut Flower Industry

Most Americans might not know it, but the vast majority of the cut flowers sold throughout the country are grown and exported out of Colombia. While the cut flower industry has aided Colombia in expanding their economy, increasing non-drug related exports, and grown overall international trade, there is a dark side to the growing of flowers–large human and environmental costs. The growing practices in the cut flower industry utilize many highly toxic chemicals that harm both the workers and the surrounding environment. Additionally, the farms themselves are riddled with labor abuses, toxic waste, and overuse of local water and energy sources. To combat these pressing issues in the billion-dollar cut-flower industry, steps need to be taken in the form of a push by consumers and stores for a safe flower certification system to combat these issues. With more stores selling and publicizing flowers that have been certified, the issue will gain attention and more stores and buyers will feel the pressure to follow suit. 

To put the issue into greater perspective, the cut flower industry in the United States takes in $34.3 billion of revenue each year. Of the flowers Americans buy, nearly 80% are imported from Colombia. However, this hasn’t always been the case. In 1961, President Kennedy began the Alliance for Progress, a plan to increase trade between the United States and Latin America with a focus on agriculture. The United States noted the climate and growing capabilities of countries in Latin America, and sought to increase and encourage agricultural production in the region while simultaneously bolstering trade.

Fast forward 30 years to 1991, when the US implemented the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA) with the purpose of “combating drug production and trafficking in the Andean Countries: Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru.” The ATPA provided tariff preferences to thousands of Andean exports through duty-free access to the United States. These policies worked to jumpstart the cut flower industry in Colombia in the hopes propping up legitimate industries to disrupt the production and export of drugs such as cocaine. Not only that, but the agreements have completely reshaped the international flower industry, and not without consequences. These consequences promise to continue far into the future, as Peru and Colombia still hold Free Trade Agreements with the United States despite the eventual expiration of the ATPA.

The success of Colombia in this industry is due, in large part, to labor abuses such as the use of dangerous chemicals and extremely low wages. Though the prosperous trade relationship between the US and Columbia that has boosted Colombia’s economy while decreasing cocaine production and violence, it has also created negative human and environmental externalities. For instance, the predominantly female workers of the farms, who earn around $300 a month, experience receive devastating side effects such as from these  toxic chemicals including “rashes, headaches, impaired vision, and skin discoloration.” from the many toxic chemicals they come into contact with through their work. In addition to this, these women face higher rates of miscarriages, infertility and birth defects due to these chemicals. 

Unfortunately, the human rights abuses taking place in Columbia’s cut flower industry don’t stop with this general lack of worker health and safety precautions. Workers on these farms labor for 16 to 20 hour days, and many of them struggle with carpal tunnel and repetitive strain injuries. To make matters worse, when asking management for medical assistance or time to see a doctor, the common response is to be fired without compensation. This not only leaves people injured and without work, but also at a disadvantage in finding alternative employment. 

The United States directly contributes to all of these unethical worker conditions on Colombian flower farms by importing mass quantities of their cut flowers. That being said, pulling out of a trade agreement that has benefited both the United States and Colombia would be difficult and detrimental to Colombia’s blooming economy. As a result, other steps need to be taken to address the human and environmental costs of the flower industry. 

Many of Colombia’s flower farms are in the Bogotá savanna area, close to El Dorado International Airport in order to expedite the flowers’ transportation across the world. This brings to light another aspect of the environmental disaster that cut flowers contribute to. These flowers are commonly flown from Colombia to countries around the world while being refrigerated and kept at low temperatures, usually around 35 degrees Fahrenheit. The transportation of these flowers in refrigerated planes–and then trucks–produces creates massive amounts of carbon dioxide emissions. As the Scientific American reports, “Valentine’s Day [alone] produces some 9,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from field to U.S. florist.” 

Upon arrival to the United States, the flowers are searched and the U.S. Department of Agriculture checks them for insects. Yet, they are not checked or tested in any way for chemical residue. This allows the growers to use incredibly harmful chemicals to preserve the flowers, many of which have been labeled as highly or extremely toxic by the World Health Organization. In response to this, VeriFlora was born. Similar to GMO or FairTrade labeling, VeriFlora is a flower certification that examines environmental and social sustainability of flowers. It was created by consumers, retailers and flower growers in the United States. Since its creation, over 32 farms in Colombia have been VeriFlora certified. VeriFlora certification requires three aspects: environmental sustainability, social and economic sustainability, and product integrity. Inside of these broader requirements include important protective elements such as “ecosystem protection,” “sustainable crop production,” and “fair labor practices,” the final of which mandates companies to “ensure a safe, equitable and healthy work environment, guaranteeing the right to organize and provide access to key services.” Additionally VeriFlora bans over 100 chemicals outright. Veriflora is thus a start in addressing the ills of the cut flower industry, but the certification of 32 farms, however, is only a small portion of the massive flower enterprise in Colombia.

Furthermore, VeriFlora could help the United States flower industry as well as improve its giant Colombian counterpart. Overall, the higher operational costs and standards in the United States in comparison to Columbia has killed the domestic flower industry. Indeed, U.S. rose production has shrunk 95 percent since the ATPA. Increasing the visibility and knowledge on the importance of VeriFlora labeling could foster a wave of safer, more eco-friendly and local flower sales. Many US flower growers have followed this trend towards sustainable flower growing. For instance, some larger retail businesses such as Whole Foods implement a labeling system and sell predominantly VeriFlora certified and Whole Trade flowers– their own certification. More stores need to begin to increase their inventor of certified flowers, following in the path of Whole Foods. 

When shopping for a bouquet, flowers from Colombia will still be the cheapest option. They are cheap to produce, ship and the flower growing climate flourishes year round. If flowers are going to continue to flow from Colombia, steps need to be taken by consumers to ensure their flowers are being sustainably grown both in regards to the environment as well as human life. VeriFlora and other flower certifications are an excellent way to begin moving towards this goal, and will also function to open a pocket, albeit small, from American growers to blossom as well.

Photo: Pink Flowers