Behind the Mother’s Day Flower Trade

Though it’ll only last a week, the impact of that Mother’s Day bouquet is much larger.

Mother’s Day is coming up this weekend, which means lots of family reunions, lots of breakfasts in bed, and lots of flowers. Next to Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day is the second largest U.S. holiday in terms of fresh flower sales, and these bouquets are far from simple – they often consist of exotic blooms hailing from countries as far off as Colombia, Kenya, and the Netherlands, all in one tissue-wrapped arrangement.

Before you snag a supermarket bouquet en route to your parents house, consider that the global flower trade is a $40 billion business that contains many of the same issues as fashion and food: assembly-line production, heavy toxin use, and fair labor concerns. But just like in those industries, there are flower options that are as friendly on your conscience as they are in the feelings they aim to inspire.

The tradition of celebrating mothers on a particular day is said to have originated in 16th century England, when it was the only time of the year that workers were allowed a day off to return home to their “mother” churches. In later times, “Mothering Sunday” was an opportunity for whole families to reunite, since many children were sent away at a young age to work as laborers or domestic servants. As legend has it, these children would pick up wild flowers or violets while on their way home as gifts for their mothers.

Fast forward a few centuries and the Mother’s Day flower tradition has become a business so big that major retailers are willing to fight dirty in order to top Google search results. It is estimated that the U.S. and Europe alone consume a mind-boggling 23 trillion flowers per year. The vast majority of those blooms come from overseas.

The Bad

According to a recent article in The Financial Times, it’s highly likely that the cheap Mother’s Day bouquets at your local grocery store hail from Colombia or Ecuador. And it’s not just the individual flowers we’re importing – everything from the planting of the bulbs to the insertion of the tacky plastic “Happy Mother’s Day” sign takes place before the arrangements even land on U.S. soil.

Last year, we reported on a study of the Colombian and Ecuadorian flower industry from the U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project, which stated that poverty-level wages, sexual harassment, and pesticide-related health problems were standard in flower-related work. Several groups, including the War on Want, have launched major public awareness campaigns on these issues, highlighting the poor conditions that face workers, most of whom are women.

Recently, the Colombian flower industry has received even more scrutiny and speculation after the United States-Colombia Free Trade Agreement was signed last October, effectively eliminating duties on flower imports. According to an article in The Global Post, some fear that the potential for more profits will provide employers and the government with little incentive to improve working conditions across the board, but particularly in the highly profitable flower industry. And since the International Trade Union Confederation ranks Colombia the deadliest country for trade unions, it’s unlikely that worker-initiated movements will result in much change.

The Good

Like fashion, or food, or any other industry that experiences abuses, the flower industry is vast in scope, and not all bouquets are created equally. And while abuses are rampant, some flower companies have had a positive impact, according to a recent article in Smithsonian Magazine:

Ultimately, many flower workers have improved their lot. Sanín’s firm, Enlaza, recently surveyed hundreds of women at M.G. Consultores and found that most had previously worked on subsistence farms or as maids, jobs that paid lower wages than the flower industry. Women with their own incomes have more autonomy than those dependent on husbands, says Friedemann-Sanchez, the anthropologist. 

In addition, more and more cries for change are coming from the demand side of the flower equation. Last Valentine’s Day, more than 50,000 people signed a petition on calling on mega-florist 1-800-Flowers to “offer fair trade flowers that aren’t picked by exploited workers.” The company responded with six new arrangements and three new gift baskets, along with a promise of greater transparency and more partnerships with fair trade flower farms. That petition still ranks as one of’s biggest successes.

So What Now?

A whole lot more that goes into floral arrangements than just planting and picking, which certainly makes us think twice about gifting a bouquet that will only last a week. But if you’re hell-bent on sticking with tradition, there are ways you can give your mother flowers that don’t betray your conscience.

Buy local. Head to your local farmer’s market and chat with the flower vendors; many of them gather their own blooms from the area.

Buy fair trade. In recent years, a number of certification bodies have arisen to verify flower producers, including Fair Trade USA, Veriflora, and the Rainforest Alliance.

Grow your own. A bouquet arrangement may wilt after a few days, but bulbs purchased from your local nursery can yield flowers all year long.

Get creative. Try your hand at origami lilies, or shop Etsy for handmade items with floral motifs.

Or if your surroundings allow it, do as the 16th-century Brits did and pick a small wildflower bouquet of your own.


Behind the Label: The Kashi Controversy

Behind the Label: Pret A Manger

Behind the Label: Burt’s Bees

Images: Derek VisserDoug Waldron

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.