In a nation as young as ours, we search everywhere for the rituals that connect us to our heritage, to each other, and to our selves. We collectively celebrate the holidays that remind us of happy childhood memories and connect us to warm feelings of family and anticipation; we retell the stories and sing the songs we learned in school and at summer camp as we grow older and find our lives suddenly filled with children; and we establish our own rituals as we become more our own, unique selves, every day.
Sometimes these rituals are as quiet and small as opening the curtains every morning before making coffee, and sometimes they're as big and dangerous as choosing to serve your country because that's what your father did before you, and his father before him.
Buying roses on Valentine's day is one of those rituals that almost all of us participate in, but it's a practice that's slowly falling out of fashion as people learn more and more about the costs of doing this kind of business.
I seem never to be in love on Valentine's Day and can't remember the last time I had a date to buy chocolates for, but the candies-and-flowers tradition is almost impossible to escape. In fact, I even published a piece a few years ago in the now defunct Asheville Post, called Table for One explaining why I thought the whole thing was so silly and how I'd much rather just be painting pottery alone anyway.
It was published three years ago, when my writing was really just getting going, but even then, I was on fire about all the things we have to lose in order to gain a few red roses on that special day of the year:
"...Nothing says "I Love You" like a gift harvested by the hands of children at the expense of contaminating a region's entire water supply."
I was fiery then and I'm fiery now.
I know that red roses are the quintessential Valentine's day thing and I know it's just about the easiest thing to find when it's 6pm on February 14 and you totally forgot to plan anything, but...that's kind of the thing that's so wrong about it all, isn't it? We're stuck feeling obligated to participate, and in ways that are incredibly environmentally destructive, not to mention that the floral industry breaches just about every human rights workplace standard that we have here in America.
Why do we outsource the things we can't afford to produce here because treating people well is too expensive? If it's too expensive to pay the people creating the products you want, innovate -- find a different way to produce what you want -- or figure out how to live without it.
Why are we shipping flowers across the world just to put them in a vase, when so much is destroyed in the process? Doesn't it seem strange? It's even weirder than buying bananas from Mexico.
Just a few of the many facts* about the floral industry that might leave you thinking twice about that last-minute bouquet this year:
- In 2000, approximately 48,000 children were found working in Ecuador's flower industry
- Today, 80% of roses in the US are imported from South America (think about the environmental effects of shipping)
- Thanks to relaxed environmental regulations, Colombia and Ecuador are able to use more pesticides like DDT and methyl bromide, which impact local wildlife, the ozone layer, and the health of the workers
- 20% of the pesticides used in Ecuador have been restricted or outlawed in the US and Europe, yet we still continue to import their products. The Department of Agriculture doesn't regulate or require permits for cut flowers
- Female rose harvesters often face the harshest conditions, including being required to perform sexual favors in order to keep their jobs
"Studies show that women -- who represent 70% of all rose workers -- have more health problems since many sort the flowers without wearing masks or latex gloves. Children under 18, who make up more than a fifth of the workforce, display signs of neurological damage at 22% above average. Most workers, however, are afraid to speak out about such conditions or give their complete name for fear of being placed on a town-wide employment blacklist. "Whoever is on a blacklist cannot work on the plantations or at any other place," said a union worker quoted in the study..."
There are so many ways to show your love without exploiting the underage, the underpaid, and the oppressed people of underdeveloped areas. Why not make something this year? How about a trip to the farmer's market for some seasonal fruits and vegetables followed by a thoughtful home-cooked meal? What about an activity with a positive environmental impact, such as planting a tree?
The dollar is strong and it matters where you spend it. Consider choosing not to spend it on exploitation this Valentine's Day and imagine what would happen if nobody bought roses anymore. Water supplies would be saved, lives would be prolonged, and dignities would remain intact.
In the spirit of sustainability and protecting human rights, why not develop a new ritual this year?