For those of us with a significant other or someone who is important to us, Valentine’s Day is a day when gifts are commonly exchanged. Three of the most popular gifts are flowers, chocolate and diamonds but did you ever think of who made these gifts possible and under what conditions?
Approximately 190 million stems of roses were purchased in the USA for Valentine’s Day last year along with millions of other specialty cut flowers and foliages such as lilies, irises, gerbera, and tulips. With prices averaging about $44 USD per arrangement, the USDA estimates that the entire floriculture industry in the US alone is worth an estimated $16 billion and growing, with peak sales before Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.
Where do these flowers come from? Holland remains the world's largest supplier with Colombia close behind, the latter now providing one out of every two flowers that are sold in the U.S. As the industry continues to grow, more and more countries are entering the market and increasing competition, businesses are driven to cut costs in order to remain competitive. Generally this results in the payment of lower wages on shorter contracts, which functions as a mechanism to deny job security, pensions, maternity leave, health and injury insurance, and the right to organize—issues that are easier to get away by moving operations closer to the equator in developing countries. In Colombia, the largest developing country exporter, these cost cutting measures affect a large number of people employed in the area and women in particular because about 70% of the 130 000 workers involved in the growing, packaging and transportation are women
Floriculture: Danger of pesticide exposureProblems with the floriculture industry do not stop at lower pay and short contracts but instead extend into the following: long hours of unpaid overtime (especially preceding peak sales periods like Valentine’s day), child labor, dismissal for pregnancy, sexual harassment, high risk of exposure to pesticides and additional environmental risks including intensive water consumption, lowering of the water table and contamination of drinking water with pesticides. Perhaps the biggest criticism of the floriculture industry relates to the issue of pesticides and the risk of exposure to the workforce.
What are some of the risks associated with exposure to pesticides?Symptoms of pesticide poisoning include headaches, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, and blurred vision as well as longer-term concerns such as cancer, birth defects, reproductive and nervous system damage. Risk of exposure is perhaps the highest for those working in the greenhouses where up to 127 different chemicals (fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, nematicides and plant growth regulators) are sprayed during the growing phase within the enclosed greenhouse space. Once ready for harvest, the flowers are then cut, selected, classified, and treated for shipment before they are packed. This means that additional pesticides are again sprayed on the flowers to keep them pest-free in order to comply with US border regulations. One of the most frequently used chemicals at this stage is the fumigant methyl bromide; a highly toxic and ozone-depleting fumigant that is restricted for use but allowed on cut flowers since they are not edible. While the presence of these chemicals affects us as the end consumer, the concentration is minimal compared to the exposure level of workers who spray these chemicals and work in the greenhouses and packing facilities.
How can the risk of pesticide exposure be reduced?Floriculture operations need to comply with the following to improve worker welfare:
- Use only chemicals approved by the EPA or a European entity
- Record pesticide use data and make available to workers and surrounding communities
- Provide workers with protective gear free of charge
- Train all workers on proper use of chemicals and risk prevention
- Evacuate all greenhouse workers from the greenhouse prior to fumigation
- Establish a workplace committees on industrial safety and hygiene
As a result of some of the social and environmental concerns mentioned above, there are a number of ethical programs that have been implemented over the last decade. For more information, check out these websites to see what is going on today:
- Flower Label Program (Germany)
- Florverde (Colombia)
- Fair Flowers and Plants (Europe)
- Kenyan Flower Council (Kenya)
- La Flor de Ecuador http://www.expoflores.com
Along with flowers, another common gift to receive (or give) on Valentine’s Day is chocolate. The Netherlands is the world’s largest roaster of cocoa (followed by the US) but the Ivory Coast is actually the largest primary producer of the actual cocoa bean that is roasted. In effect, the Ivory Coast supplies almost 50% of the world’s cocoa beans followed by Ghana (25%) and then Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, Cambodia and Ecuador that add up to make up most of the rest. Although the market for cocoa topped three million tonnes last year, the actual profitability of the crop is highly dependent on world prices and on natural conditions affecting yield such as droughts. In terms of the world market, cocoa is actually considered one of the most unstable commodities due to fluctuating market prices but these prices have been on a steady decline for the last decade. Due to the lower profit margin, farmers then look to cut costs by using cheap labor, with some even resorting to using child labor.
What is cocoa?Chocolate is made from cocoa seeds (usually referred to as beans), which are contained within leathery pods the size of footballs that hang from the branches and trunk of the cacao tree. When ripe, these pods are harvested by the worker with the use of a knife on a pole and then split with a machete to reveal upwards of 50 seeds surrounded by pulp. Both the pulp and cocoa are removed from the pod and left out to “sweat”, leaving the fermented dried beans behind to be collected and eventually roasted and processed to make cocoa. However, what we refer to as “cocoa” is actually a bitter powder made further along in the supply chain by grinding the seeds and removing the cocoa butter from the solids.
The crop supplies an important source of income to many families growing it on their small farms but the conditions under which the commodity is grown is plagued by documented evidence of persistent human rights abuses, primarily child labor and forced labor.
Child slave labor and traffickingAlthough there are numerous problems associated with working conditions on many of the farms, the worst cases are from farms in West Africa where there is documented evidence of young boys from the ages of the ages of 12 to 16 being trafficked from their home countries and sold into slave labor on cocoa farms. The primary receiving country of child workers is the Ivory Coast, the leading supplier and exporter of cocoa beans to the world market, accounting for more than 40% of global production. The primary supplier of child workers to these farms is Mali. With approximately 600,000 farms in the Ivory Coast, the US Department of State estimates that approximately 110,000 children are working on the farms, with as many as 10,000-15,000 working as slaves. Here the children are subject to long, punishing hours of work with knives and machetes, suffering from frequent beatings and abuse. The slaves are paid nothing and fed inadequately, and are often locked in their housing units at night to prevent escape.
The Cocoa Industry ProtocolIn 2001, the use of child slave labor to produce chocolate caught the attention of the media and the government. In response, the chocolate industry agreed (via the Harken-Engel Protocol) to voluntarily take steps to end child slavery by July of 2005 and to achieve compliance with ILO Convention 182 (Worst Forms of Child Labor), thereby ending child slavery and exploitation. The mechanism to do this was via a certification system that would verify chocolate as being “child-labor free”. However, the final deadline came and went with little appreciable development regarding the eradication of child slavery.
Part of the failure was due to the nature of the industry itself (tens of thousands of small farms, dispersed in remote locations) and the difficulty in monitoring such a large sample size. Additional problems regarding the ability to trace the beans back to individual farms were also hampered because the beans are commonly consolidated into one stock; all without supporting chain of custody documentation. Without the necessary records and documentation required in conventional monitoring methods, it is unlikely that the beans can be traced back to the farms where child labor violations occurred.
What can you do?
- Spend a little more on Valentine’s Day chocolate and buy Fair Trade chocolate. Fair Trade guarantees producers the income they need to send their children to school and pay their workers fair wages, and ensures that no forced or abusive child labor was used in the making of their products.
- Ask your grocer to stock Fair Trade chocolate (or other chocolate brands produced under ethical conditions) and buy it year round
- Ask the chocolate manufactures to buy directly from verified child-labor free farms to create more pressure on the farms
- Ask the chocolate manufacturers to pay more for cocoa beans
The third, and most expensive, commonly exchanged gift on Valentine's Day are diamonds. Referred to as conflict or blood diamonds, these precious gems can be mined and sold in order to fund armed conflict and civil war. They are also responsible for countless human rights abuses and the deaths and the displacement of millions and millions of people living in Africa. According to Amnesty International, profits from the illegal diamond trade are worth billions of dollars and used by rebels to buy arms in countries such as Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Sierra Leone. While the wars in Angola and Sierra Leone are now over, and the fighting in DRC decreased, the toll in human life is still extreme, amounting to the loss of an estimated 3.7 million lives. Furthermore, new conflicts are continually on the rise and diamonds continue to fund armed warfare in other volatile areas of Africa such as in the Ivory Coast and Liberia.
The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS)In 2003, efforts were made to stop the illegal trade when a government-run initiative known as the Kimberley Process and Clean Diamond Trade Act was introduced to stem the flow of conflict diamonds. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) is a voluntary system of self-regulation that covers the entire diamond supply chain (not just the rough diamonds) from the mine to point of sale, requiring the diamond industry to implement a code of conduct to prevent the buying and selling of conflict diamonds. Verification is conducted by independent auditors and monitored by appropriate government agencies but can only be considered effective if all sectors of the diamond industry work together to implement the system of warranties. While the supply of conflict diamonds has been reduced, some from the Ivory Coast are still finding their way through Ghana into the legitimate diamond market and entering the United States.
What can you do?
- Buy certified diamonds and let your jeweler know that you are interested in socially responsible purchasing. Even though the system is not yet perfect, your purchase will indicate to the market you want conflict-free diamonds and improvements to certification will follow if there is enough consumer demand.
- Buy fake diamonds (which can be better than the real thing!)
References: Global Witness and the Combating Conflict Diamond Campaign Kimberley Process: An Amnesty International Position Paper; Recommendations to the Kimberley Process (KP) participants in order to effectively strengthen the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), June 2006 Global Policy:
For all three of these Valentine's Day gifts--flowers, chocolate and diamonds--there are more socially and environmentally responsible alternatives that can be purchased instead of the conventionally produced items. It is the responsibility of the consumer to make informed decisions, which means we must all try to become more educated and aware of what we are purchasing and the impact our purchase could make on the workers and the environment that produced it. If you can't find what you are looking for, kindly ask your grocer or retailer to provide it and let them know you are interested in being an ethical consumer!