Friday, May 4, 2012

The carbon footprint of flowers (WTF??)

I was listening to this Freakonomics podcast yesterday when I heard host Stephen Dubner offer up a factoid that absolutely shocked me.
With Mother’s Day coming up, we thought it’d be interesting to look at the cut-flower industry. Americans spend about $12 billion a year on them. Mario Valle, a wholesaler at the L.A. Flower District, tells us that Mother’s Day is easily his biggest day of the year: “It’s 30 percent of my year. Everyone has a mother!”  
So where do all those flowers come from? It turns out that about 80 percent of all cut flowers sold in the U.S. are imported. The leading producers are Colombia, Ecuador, and Costa Rica, places where the sun shines roughly 12 hours a day, year-round. The flowers must be refrigerated immediately after they’re cut; most are flown to the Miami International Airport, which handles about 187,000 tons of flowers a year, and then trucked to their destination. 
We live in a day and age where people are obsessed with “food miles” and the carbon footprint of everything they consume. So where is the outrage over these globe-trotting Mother’s Day flowers? 
You read that right... the flowers are flown to Miami, and then TRUCKED all the way across the country to Los Angeles, where Mario sells them to local florists and other mother-lovers. You can only imagine how much fuel is used in a year to bring these flowers from Costa Rica to our lovely mothers and wives for Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, anniversaries, etc.

It says a lot about our modern society that we actually have to think about the carbon footprint of flowers--somewhere along the line, I think we got some things backwards here.

It's amazing how infrequently things like this are mentioned when we discuss our nation's energy policy and what we can do to become more energy-independent. Ultimately, very few of us spend any time at all thinking about how the things we buy end up in the stores we buy them from (not to mention thinking about energy hogs in our own homes). If we did, we might make different decisions.

Sure, we might intellectually know that our toys are "Made in China" or that the shrimp we're buying is from somewhere in Vietnam (or, if they have no eyes, Louisiana).  But do we actually think about who exactly is farming those shrimp, or how they're managing to get them all the way to us in the middle of the United States (or how long it takes, or how much fuel it requires, or how many people touch those shrimp along the way)? Usually, the answer is no. So how can we be expected to change our behaviors if we simply don't know what exactly is going on (and might have trouble finding out even if we wanted to)?

For my part, the Freakonomics podcast certainly made me think twice about buying flowers for my mother this year. Yes, I probably still will, because I'm in Virginia and she's in Massachusetts and what the hell else am I going to do, but there has to be a better way... right?


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