Thursday, 28 January 2010

Where are all the flowers from?

This wonderful animation brings to life the social and ecological impacts of flower farms in East Africa. The workforce is predominantly female, and Women Working Worldwide campaigns to improve poor working conditions, which include forced overtime and sexual harassment. Protection from toxic pesticides is inadequate, and health effects of overexposure can include harm to female reproductive system, which is ironic with sales of flowers about to skyrocket for giving to women to show love on Valentine’s and Mother’s Day.

Pesticide residues pollute water systems which are depleted by the flower farms. A flower is about 90 per cent water, so UK shoppers in indoor malls sheltered from the rain in one of the wettest countries in the world are buying flowers, an inedible and purely ornamental product, from one of the driest. Drought and high food prices led to a World Food Programme appeal for emergency food aid for 3.8 million Kenyan people, where dependency on grain imports is rising. Recent rainfall in the region only promises a late and partial respite from the long standing drought. Thirty enormous flower farms around Lake Naivasha have diverted water from desperately needed food crops and livestock, and drained the lake to half its previous size. Water is even used to clear dust on the loose surface roads along which the flowers are transported to airports for export.

About 80 per cent of Kenya’s flower exports are to Europe, with almost half of this sold in the UK. Kenya is the world’s biggest flower exporter, earnings from horticultural exports more have overtaken earnings from tourism or remittances from working abroad. But the industry is precarious. Kenya’s flower exports are declining, and are expected to be down from a record high of 93,000 tonnes in 2008, to 80,000 tonnes in 2009. While this is a minor decrease compared to the contraction of other industries, flowers can only be so cheap in supermarkets with low pay for farm workers, and lowering social and environmental standards. The effect of price pressure on producers due to supermarket buyer power is evident, as Kenya’s 2008 record volume of flower sales actually brought lower export earnings for Kenya, which fell about 7 per cent to $504.4 million. In the UK and many other European countries, flowers are established as a cheap and cheerful everyday purchase, relatively resilient to recession where people cut back on big-ticket items like expensive electronic products, furniture and holidays.

The entrances of UK supermarkets are, as usual filled with brightly coloured roses. Some of the bouquets are of roses of different colours, some are mixed with other types of flowers, others are bunches of identical roses. Many of the bouquets are labelled as produce of Kenya, but I notice that an increasing proportion are labelled ‘More than one country’, so the customer has no idea where the flowers are from. I can understand this with mixed bouquets where different types of flowers are assembled into bouquets at the main hubs for the world flower trade like Schiphol in the Netherlands, although it makes a mockery of supermarkets’ attempts to place the onus for sustainability on consumer choice enabled by labelling, which in many cases obscures rather than reveals the country of origin and other important aspects of the supply chain. But this is a photo of a bouquet of identical bright pink roses with the ‘More than one country’ label.

Customers in the UK are urged by some development organisations and the DFID (Department for International Development) to buy Kenyan flowers to support the livelihoods of flower farm workers, pretty impossible if there is no country of origin on the label? But the real pressure on Kenyan producers is not fickle consumer preferences. If a retailer stops stocking Kenyan flowers this is more likely to be because they are sourcing similar flowers from a country with lower production costs. Flower farms in Kenya face cut throat competition from other countries, and the 'race to the bottom' for lower production costs is evnident, two major flower farms have recently relocated to Ethiopia due to lower costs there. Ethiopian flowers are sold in the UK, but I have yet to see ‘Produce of Ethiopia’ on flower bouquet labels, so it seems this is not something that retailers wish to highlight.

Going back to the social impact of flower farms, the label states that the roses are guaranteed for 5 days. For other bunches of flowers the guaranteed vase life is longer - 7, 10 or even 14 days. This is longer than the time frame for an assured livelihood for many of the women working on African flower farms, who work on a casual basis with no contract of employment. I’ll get my mother some fair trade chocolate for Mothers’ Day, at least it’s edible rather than useless, and offers some guarantee of fairness to workers in producing countries.

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