Flowers for Mother's Day?

Elizabeth A. Stanton

This article is from the May/June 2003 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the May/June 2003 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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Planning to give your mother flowers for Mother's Day? Before you pick up the phone or head over to your local florist, consider a few environmental facts: Conventional—that is, non-organic—flower growers use huge volumes of deadly pesticides. Your mother, and anyone else who handles the blooms, will come in contact with these chemicals.

The risks of toxic exposure for your mother and for other flower lovers are real. But they are infinitesimal compared to the risks borne by farm workers and their communities in flower-exporting countries worldwide. One-fifth of the chemicals used in floriculture in developing countries are banned or untested in the United States, and many are known carcinogens.

Flowers have been found to carry 50 times the amount of pesticides allowed on foods, and yet flowers entering the United States, while checked carefully for pests, are not inspected for pesticides. In flower-exporting countries like Colombia, India, China, and Mexico, many flower workers absorb chemicals through their skin and lungs, as they often work without even the simplest forms of protective equipment like gloves or masks. Commercial flowers are usually grown in sealed greenhouses, not for added warmth, but to keep pests out and pesticides in. The costs of these conditions in terms of workers' health are high. Fifty to sixty percent of floriculture workers report symptoms of pesticide poisoning, according to studies conducted in Costa Rica and Ecuador. Female workers have trouble getting pregnant and experience high rates of miscarriage. Babies born to flower-worker parents have increased risk of birth defects, including neurological damage.

The predominantly female floriculture workforce is paid low wages with no benefits, on short contracts. Child labor and dismissal for pregnancy are common, as are long hours of unpaid overtime before Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. Most flower workers live close to their workplaces, and as a result face further exposure to unregulated chemicals and other environmental harms in their homes and communities. Flower production also uses large quantities of irrigation water, and water tables are dropping in many flower-producing regions around the world. The resulting competition for water and cropland, especially near transportation centers, creates pressures on subsistence farmers and undermines local food security. But as long as flower crops can earn large growers huge profits, export-oriented flower production will continue to expand.

Low-paid greenhouse and field workers, at home and abroad, are paying for consumers' floral expressions of love at the cost of their health. Given the inequities and dangers associated with commercial flower production, should you refuse to buy flowers for your mother? Maybe. But the interests of flower workers worldwide might be better served by creating a demand for flowers that are certified as having been produced in a way that is both clean and fair. Flowers like this do exist. If you have access to certified clean and fair flowers, make the effort to seek them out and buy them. Otherwise, you can help to generate a demand by calling your local flower vendors and asking them to carry certified flowers. And of course, lend your support to organizations working to address the labor conditions and the health and safety of agricultural workers.

To the mothers, and others, who work in floriculture: May your struggle for an equitable workplace and a safe environment bear a fruit more beautiful than a bouquet of flowers: Justice.

This Econ-Atrocity is brought to you by the Center for Popular Economics (CPE). CPE is a nonprofit organization that seeks to demystify economics and provide alternatives to mainstream analysis. Econ-Atrocity e-mail bulletins report on important economic facts, figures, and events. To subscribe, send an e-mail (with "Subscribe" as the subject) to:

Organizations working to address the environmental hazards of flower production include:

For more information on fair trade, see Global Exchange.

For a complete list of references, click on "Econ-Atrocities" at the Center for Popular Economics web site.