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What's More Fair about 'Fair Trade' Flowers?

Going to the root of that question took me to Ecuador's Cayambe region, where I met with workers in the fields. Second in a reader-funded series.

Gabriela Perdomo 11 May

Gabriela Perdomo is a journalist based in Vancouver. She wrote this, and more stories to come, as a recipient of a reader-funded Tyee Solutions Reporting Fellowship to trace the environmental and human rights footprint of imported flowers in B.C.

[Editor's Note: Canadians' growing taste for fresh flowers shows no sign of peaking. Here in B.C., flower purchases have grown by 20 per cent in just the last four years. Most of those blooms are imported, often from developing countries where nursery conditions have attracted criticism for being hard on the environment and exploitive of workers. But new initiatives, modeled on programs that certify other indulgences like coffee and chocolate as good for the conscience as well as the morale, are certifying some bouquets as "fair trade." But do such labels really represent better practices where our flowers are grown? Supported by Tyee readers through a Tyee Fellowship, reporter Gabriela Perdomo has been checking out the high valleys of South America's Andes that produce more than half our imported flowers. Here is the second of her reports. (Read her first report here.)]

Fresh flowers, it seems, are everywhere. It's hard not to stumble over buckets of them lining the street or at the grocery store. Even on a dark Canadian winter day, we can always pick up a bouquet on our way home. Dozens of online services will deliver flowers to our loved ones across the country all year long. For most of us, flowers are an affordable luxury.

When I told Carmen Romero that the roses she was holding would easily go for $50 a dozen in Canada, she was stunned. It takes Carmen three days to earn that much money at the Ponte Tresa rose farm in Cayambe, Ecuador. There, she earns $400 a month harvesting and packing the tall luxuriant roses that end up all over North America, Europe and Russia. That may not sound like much by Vancouver standards, but Romero is earning twice what employees at some neighboring flower farms make.

Exploring the reason for the difference, and how B.C. flower-buyers are contributing to it, was my reason for being in Ecuador. So-called "fair trade" labels -- those seals of approval guaranteeing your conscience that the product you just bought was produced without hurting workers or mother nature -- well-established in life's other indulgences like coffee, chocolate, and diamonds -- have come finally to the bouquet. I wanted to know if their promise wilted under scrutiny.

We don't grow roses in British Columbia any more. The Pacific Northwest used to be a major flower-growing hub. But beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, cheaper labour and better climate conditions in places like Cayambe out-competed local production. We now import more than $23 million worth of fresh flowers of all varieties into B.C. every year. South America provides about three-quarter of those, with fully half coming from Colombia and another 15 per cent from Ecuador. And just as with other products we buy from the world's less-developed regions, our growing taste for imported flowers raises questions about our responsibility for how those blooms are produced.

A soiled record

As flower production in the developing world became more industrialized two decades ago, NGOs and journalists began reporting on the poor labour and environmental conditions that prevailed in many greenhouses. Reports spoke of child labour on flower farms, discriminatory treatment of women, and inadequate care and protection in the use of toxic agrochemicals. Organizations from Human Rights Watch to Oxfam International to the International Labour Rights organization have documented a wide array of troublesome issues surrounding the industry.

Today many in the industry acknowledge its early shortcomings. Trade groups like the Colombian Association of Flower Exporters (Asocolflores) say they have made improvements. For instance, after studies confirmed anecdotal evidence suggesting unusually high rates of asthma and miscarriages among female greenhouse workers, more than 60 per cent of the industry workforce, women are now banned from spraying any type of floral agrochemicals in that country.

Not all complaints related to floriculture fall on the industry itself. The two countries where most of our flowers are grown -- Colombia and Ecuador -- feature heavily centralized governments inclined to ignore rural agricultural areas. Inept, poor and corrupt local governments -- a rough generalization but sadly a well-founded one -- are often incapable of overseeing, let alone policing, labour or environmental conditions on flower farms.

I sought out Carmen Romero because she works at a farm different from some others in the Cayambe region -- one certified by an international organization to meet higher standards of labour practice. I wanted to know if her life as a flower worker had changed for the better after Ponte Tresa farm obtained its Fairtrade certification, the official label granted by Fair Trade International. Her answer was an unequivocal yes.

Ponte Tresa is one of many flower farms in the Cayambe region, a picturesque valley 78 kilometres north of Quito, guarded by a snow-tipped volcano. Romero spoke with pride of her family roots in the area. Other women in her family also work in greenhouses. She feels lucky among them. Her salary, including Fairtrade-related benefits, is almost double the monthly minimum $264 wage her relatives earn at other farms. She also has access to health care, educational opportunities, and community projects that she would not be able to afford on their incomes.

Two shades of 'fair'

Romero's experience was at least a partial answer to the question I'd come to South America to answer. In the past decade or so, many certification labels have sprung up claiming to address social and environmental issues in the flower industry. I wanted to find out whether the two I've seen in B.C. flower shops -- Fairtrade and the Rainforest Alliance -- reflect any real improvement in environmental or working conditions where flowers are being grown.

The first label of the pair is awarded by an NGO based in Germany, Fair Trade International. Its benchmarks for certifying a variety of products, including flowers, coffee, chocolate and sugar -- even soccer balls -- have the highest labour standards of any similar program. Its strict norms prohibit child labour (no one under 18 can be seen working at a farm) and require a minimum of 21 vacation days a year for workers, more than most national labour laws guarantee (in comparison, B.C. guarantees 14 annual vacation days after one year's employment, plus nine statutory holidays). Applicants for the Fairtrade label also agree to forego certain agrochemicals entirely and abide by specific guidelines for the use of others.

A centerpiece of the Fairtrade program is a so-called 'social premium.' It's a premium of 10 per cent on the sale price of their products that Fairtrade-certified farms agree to apply to all sales. The premium money goes directly into a fund managed by a workers' corporation. Company managers can't touch it. Importers or retailers buying from these farms accept this premium on every stem they purchase. If you've ever bought a Fairtrade certified product, you may have paid a little more than you needed to. But you also contributed a little something to the greater security and opportunity being enjoyed by workers like Romero.

The U.S.-based Rainforest Alliance certifies farms that comply with norms established by another NGO, the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN). They focus less on labour issues, more on agricultural practices. Among other things, the SAN norm requires flower growers to catalogue plant and animal species living near their operations in order to reduce the impact on their habitat. It also bans the use of some agrochemicals and provides protocols for composting and water treatment.

The Rainforest Alliance has certified several flower growers in Colombia, B.C.'s number-one source of fresh blooms. The Bogota Savanna, where 85 per cent of Colombia's flowers are grown, was first identified more than 40 years ago by Dutch flower growers as the ideal place to cultivate roses and carnations. Where milk cows once were queens, they now share space with thousands of acres of plastic-covered greenhouses. All the Savannah growers I spoke to, certified and non-certified alike, praised the Rainforest Alliance for helping the industry raise its environmental standards to protect the country's remarkable biodiversity.

Unlike the Fairtrade model, the Rainforest Alliance doesn't attach a workers' premium to a flower's price. Sean McHugh of Fair Trade Vancouver and Michael Zelmer of Fair Trade Canada, two Canadian NGOs promoting the competing Fairtrade certification label, criticize the Rainforest Alliance on this account. Both say the social premium is a key to worker empowerment and independence. Without it, they say, workers cannot acquire the tools to deal on equal footing with employers.

But just as the Fairtrade program addresses some environmental concerns, the Rainforest Alliance has explicit norms dealing with workers' well-being. These are mainly related to occupational health, exposure to toxic substances, and access to training and education.

In the busy day care and primary school for children whose parents work at Elite Flower in the Bogota Savannah, I witnessed how the certificate's mandates had improved the quality of people's lives as much as the environment surrounding the farm. Following the action among 200 happy toddlers and children in neat uniforms and attended by loving teachers, it became clear to me that a culture of care for the environment is not possible without an element of care for people -- and vice-versa.

Voting with our wallets

Fairtrade flowers have been available in B.C. for about eight years, thanks mainly to Jos van Berckel. He is general manager at Florimex Vancouver, the only B.C. wholesaler approved to carry Fairtrade-certified flowers. Van Berckel became a convert to its program after a visit to flower farms in Kenya in the 1990s. Comparing certified and non-certified farms, he says, "It was such a big difference that for me it became very clear that [it] worked."

Rainforest Alliance certified flowers are more recent arrivals in B.C. Whole Foods carries flowers with both the Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance labels. I asked Cristina King, the company's regional floral specialist, how it manages to sell flowers that are clearly more expensive -- both for Whole Foods and for the consumer -- and still be competitive.

"I think it's all about being able to communicate effectively," King said. "When people actually understand what the money is doing and how it affects people in other countries, they start buying into it and voting with their dollars."

David Wilson, manager of produce operations at Choices, echoes King's view that British Columbian consumers will buy fair trade products when they understand the extra dollars are doing good work. But he thinks consumers aren't "there" yet with flowers.

While coffee with Fairtrade's label is a regular best-seller at Choices, Wilson said, flowers with the label haven't increased their sales share since the store first offered them seven years ago. "The quality is excellent," he says. "But there's only a few people who understand the story. People don't realize there's a benefit to the producers of the flowers."

Perhaps they need to hear from Romero and some of her coworkers. In a simple language that suggested they probably never finished high school, they told me with pride how every employee's child was enrolled in school, "some of them even at college or university level." It was, they told me, a completely different world from the one they used to know as flower growers.

These were the stories I was after when I traveled to Colombia and Ecuador this spring with my husband, an amateur photographer, to see whether conscience-salving fair trade certifications were really improving life in the South American valleys where our flowers are grown. In forthcoming articles in this Tyee Fellowship Series, I'll explore both the social and environmental sides of their impact -- and bring the story back home to see whether we British Columbians are contributing enough to this change.  [Tyee]

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