Jean-Baptiste Andrieu, Associate, Advisory Services, BSR

If you bought roses for your Valentine today, did you wonder where the flowers came from? If you got your dozen stems in Europe, they probably arrived on an airplane a few days ago from Kenya, the lead rose exporter to the European Union. If you live in the United States, the bouquet may have come from Colombia or Ecuador. Generally, commercial flowers are grown on large-scale farms in developing or emerging countries and then bought directly by big retailers or sold via traders and auction houses.

In production countries, the cut-flower industry employs thousands of workers and contributes significantly to export revenues, driving economic growth. As such, the industry has a key opportunity to promote empowering and sustainable livelihoods for workers by adopting responsible practices along the supply chain, which, in turn, can enhance business success.

However, significant barriers to this opportunity remain. Labor and human rights issues are enduring challenges in the industry, and although many producers, traders, and retailers promote and adhere to responsible supply chain practices, they often struggle with how to report on and communicate about their approaches.

While attending the horticultural trade fair IPM Essen in Germany, I was reminded of this unique opportunity and the persistent challenges. As I was walking through the exhibition halls, it struck me that, despite their impressive flower displays and the emphasis put on sustainable supply chain issues by major retailers, flower traders did not mention their responsible supply chain management practices.

Conversely, the handful of flower producers I met at the fair spoke confidently about the social certification programs they were implementing, such as Fairtrade International or the Rainforest Alliance, and their impacts. This included building hospitals and schools in Ethiopia with money generated from Fairtrade certification, strengthening worker retention to avoid increased investments in new worker training in Kenya, and improving working conditions in Costa Rica, which translated into higher flower quality. The producers’ comments echoed the impacts that we’ve seen in the farms where we implement BSR’s HERproject, which promotes women’s empowerment in global supply chains through partnerships with major retailers.

Later that day, my participation in the first general assembly of the Floriculture Sustainability Initiative (FSI) underlined why flower traders seemed uneasy communicating about supply chain responsibility. Unlike the fruit and vegetable sector, the flower industry only recently started implementing sustainability standards and certification schemes on a widespread basis.

Although most of the trading companies at the meeting were working with suppliers that were certified Fairtrade or by the Rainforest Alliance, they have not yet figured out how to respond to retailer requirements and customer demands and deploy robust, integrated sustainability programs. The lack of transparency and comparability among standards presents an additional challenge, making it difficult for traders to understand and report on what is happening in their supply chains.

FSI brings together all actors in the supply chain, including producers, traders, and retailers. The initiative will work to clarify and benchmark available standards to make them more transparent and comparable. As an associate member of FSI, HERproject and BSR are excited to work across the supply chain to address worker health and empowerment issues in the flower sector. We have engaged with flower producers in Kenya and Ethiopia, but this step represents a new area of focus for HERproject. We look forward to collaborating with partners along the supply chain to address these multifaceted challenges, and to ensuring that, in the future, your Valentine’s Day bouquet will be more likely to support economic and social improvements for people working in the flower industry.