This article was first published on the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on May 11, 2023. Image by Josh Stephenson.
When you’re picking out some flowers for Mother’s Day, it’s worth thinking about how you can give mum something beautiful without the ugly underbelly that underpins so much of the unsustainable floristry and floral design industries.
It’s an issue driven by the industry’s excessive use of single-use plastic, like packaging, decorations, and floral foam (the water-absorbing base used for flower arranging), and the heavy carbon and chemical footprint associated with imported flowers.
Research has found Australians were set to spend $754 million on Mother’s Day in 2022 with flowers (34 per cent of those surveyed) being the most popular gift.
So, how can you buy more sustainable blooms this year? A growing awareness of these problems is driving a shift within the floral industry to pursue more sustainable practices.
Melbourne-based florist and science writer Rita Feldmann is one of the cause’s most passionate advocates. She launched the #NoFloralFoam campaign on Instagram in 2017, after learning how damaging foam was to the environment, and founded the Sustainable Floristry Network (SFN), a global education organisation for florists, in 2019.
“If a consumer wants to make a purchase with a lower carbon footprint, the most important thing is to ask for locally grown, seasonal flowers,” says Feldmann.
“You can buy a bunch of cut flowers, take them home, put them in a vase and – if you get them into a composting stream – you almost have a zero-waste cycle.”
People should, Feldmann says, also ask for minimal packaging and no floral foam. While floral foam is still a common practice in floristry, more businesses are removing or reducing their use of the non-biodegradable plastic base.
Muck is a foam-free sustainable floral studio in Marrickville. Owner Sophie Wolanski, who largely works in events, says removing foam from her practice required retraining herself and “some study and experimenting”.
She now uses workarounds like frames (metal stands with space in-built for a vase or bucket), branches or plants as a base, and integrating water sources, like reusable vessels, into the floral design.
Other common alternatives include upcycled glass vessels, chicken wire, recycled plastic mesh, grills, and kenzan (spiked flower frogs).
Wolanski believes consumer demand influences supply and encourages shoppers to ask questions. “If more people went into a flower shop and said, ‘What’s local? I don’t want to buy imported flowers,’ the flower shop would buy less imported product.”
Michael Pavlou owns Bush Flowers, a sustainable foam-free florist and boutique nursery in Carlton North dedicated to Australian native flowers and plants. He agrees that customers need to ask questions of their florists.
“The main question to ask is: ‘Where did they come from?’ It’s always a good sign when your florist can say, ‘These are from a plant or flower farm in Gippsland, Sale, or Monbulk’ and ‘I know the people growing them.’”
Bush Flowers grows plants and flowers on its farm on the NSW/Victoria border, alongside buying from other independent domestic growers.
Pavlou says it can be hard for people to identify what’s local and what’s imported. “Probably the most important step the industry could take is country-of-origin labelling for flowers.”
“Consumers need information to make informed decisions. They don’t have it at the moment.”
Raising awareness of unsustainable practices in floristry is an important step but, Feldmann believes, education is how lasting change will occur.
“That’s where an industry program became a sensible idea.”
The SFN will soon launch its first online course – a foundation in sustainable floristry. It will broaden sustainable practices education and help florists and related industry professionals better understand and apply them.
Consumers can also use the SFN Directory, a free tool on their website to find sustainable florists.
As shoppers, we’ve become accustomed to having endless choices and convenience, but Feldmann says, “That’s not sustainable. Think about all the energy that goes into creating that scenario. Maybe we have to accept second best.”