Photo credit: Monica Brinn
I don’t fully understand the notion of proving your love on a random cold day in February by buying chocolate s/he doesn’t need, flowers that will die, or expensive diamonds, but that’s me. I am not here to tell you that creativity is the way to a person’s heart. I am here to tell you that if your love is a chocolate and flowers type, try to pick the ethical variety.
Let’s start with the iconic red roses. Long stem, elegant and beautiful. Have you ever seen a rose bush? It is covered in thorns to protect the delicate petals from predators. You may notice that the stems of the buds of the ones in the florist shop or grocery store have no thorns. These are not GMO ‘thornless” flowers, they have been de-thorned. Roses are incredibly fragile. It is unlikely that a machine is able to cut off the thorns while preserving the flowers. This means that humans must remove these dangerous thorns. A gardener will tell you that taking the thorns off can be done with the appropriate gloves and tools. It is tedious, but possible.
In 2012, the International Business Times reported that most roses in the US come from Ecuador and Columbia. Women and children tend to have smaller and more nimble fingers, so they are more often employed than men to de-stem them. If you have attempted to de-stem roses,you know that gloves are cumbersome and slow you down, so even if they are provided with gloves (which is unlikely in many cases), the workers are unlikely to use them since they are paid by the bud, not the hour. This will result in horribly cut-up hands.
According to the Atlantic (2012), “Because the flower industry is driven by human labor, when demand skyrockets around Valentine’s Day, Colombian and Ecuadorian growers can’t just open a valve to increase production. They have to get more labor out of their existing employees, sometimes having them work up to 20 hours a day, and they have to hire on new workers. Often, that means children.”
Worse yet are the pesticides. According to this report from the International Labor Rights Forum, “More than 100 pesticides are used in the production of cut flowers in Latin America. Some of them are highly toxic and prohibited in the United States, but flower companies continue to use them in Ecuador without providing workers with training or proper protection. The workers are exposed to the pesticides every day, and some of the immediate effects that many of my co-workers and I have suffered include allergic reactions, vomiting and fainting. After working years in this industry, many workers also develop lung problems, vision loss and other conditions.”
While there are regulations in place from our government attempting to regulate the labor trade, it is far from perfect and hard for us to enforce. The solution for you the consumer is to seek out ethical, fairly traded flowers. The Fair Trade USA website provides a list of suppliers who abide by fair labor practices and provide sweat and blood-free flowers, not just roses. Most of these can be ordered on line. If you are in Europe, the Fair Trade Foundation offers a similar list. Whole Foods offers Fair Trade roses in their stores, so you can pick them up. A simply Google Search for “fair trade roses” will provide you with plenty of options on-line and in your locality to purchase ethical roses and other flowers.
Are ethically sourced roses more expensive? Yes, probably. However, that means that workers are paid a fair wage, are provided a safe working environment, work standard hours and days or are paid for appropriate overtime and children are not allowed to work in lieu of school or in dangerous conditions. You must ask yourself, is showing your partner you love them worth doing so at the expensive of other humans, or are you willing to spend a little more to spread your love a little further?
The iconic heart-shaped box of chocolate. Unfortunately, chocolate is another major culprit in poor labor practices. For chocolate, we move from South America to west Africa, where the practices for harvesting chocolate are shocking to say the least. This article in Fortune is long and not an easy read, but if you care about the lives of children worldwide, do yourself a favor and read it. Hungry for more? Give this a read.
The west African chocolate industry is a major player in child trafficking and forced child labor with no hope of every going to school. Parents often “sell” their children into these situations out of desperation. These children are poorly treated, not paid and are trapped in poverty due to no access to education. Abuse is common and generally, it is just a heart-breaking picture.
All is not lost! You can have your chocolate and eat it too without fear that you have robbed a family of their child, deprived a child of his or her education (or life), and simply lined the pockets of major corporations focused only on the bottom line. There is often an argument that we in the west must allow other countries to develop. This is true, but development must not be at the expense of the welfare of the people. Choosing not to buy slave chocolate will force the companies that engage in these practices to change their ways or lose their market share.
So, in order to buy ethical chocolate for your love, check out these sites:
The Ethical Consumer is one of my favorite sources of finding ethical products and they offer a chocolate buyers guide for Valentine’s Day.
Equal Exchange works with farmers and provides a number of ethically sourced products, including chocolate.
I was super impressed with Food is Power’s site. They did their own research and listed different categories, so you can see definitively what to avoid and what to buy.
For both roses and chocolate, when in doubt look for one of the Fair Trade logos. If it does not bear this, don’t buy it!! (Rainforest Alliance Certified is also a good sign, but it has to do more with the environment than people, so look for both.)
For those of you planning on going BIG for the V-day, diamonds are a popular choice. Many of you may have seen the movie Blood Diamond (2006) with Leonardo DiCaprio, which really shed light on the issue of so-called ‘blood’ or ‘conflict’ diamonds. Diamonds were commonly used to fund the civil wars in the Congo, Angola and Sierra Leone, but these conflicts are thankfully largely over and have been for some time. In 2003, many diamond producing and buying countries entered into the Kimberley Process, which enacted strict guidelines to eliminate blood diamonds. This has been somewhat effective, but has failed to completely eliminate conflict diamonds as explained in this article by Time.
I lived in Botswana for over three years where diamonds are a major source of revenue for the country. As a result of a national program of mining and labor regulation, the mines provide employment to thousands, and the revenue is used to support government programs such as schools, roads and healthcare. Namibia is another good example of a country with good labor practices, and blood-free diamonds.
If you want to buy diamonds. Ensuring that they are Kimberley Process certified is a step in the right direction, but finding out from which country they come will further add to your peace of mind that no humans were harmed in the mining of your diamond. Legitimate jewelers in the US should be able to show you the paperwork on your diamond from mine to store. Time offers a solution in their How to Buy an Ethical Diamond article. You can also buy vintage or pre-owned diamonds. This won’t mean that it was not a blood diamond, but it has already been in the market and, therefore, is no longer contributing to the problem. Because diamonds devalue, you may save money this way.
Valentine’s day celebrates love. While showing love for your spouse, fiance, girlfriend or boyfriend or partner is beautiful, wouldn’t it be nice if that love could be shared further to the people of developing countries who will never wear a diamond, never taste chocolate and never have a cut flower in a vase? Don’t waste energy feeling guilty about what you have, but share what you have by investing in blood-free, sweat-free, slave-free flowers, chocolates and diamonds. Spread the love not hate.
If you want to go even further. In addition to supporting suppliers of ethically produced goods, a gift in your partner’s honor to one of the organizations who is working to organize laborers, educate the public and hold companies and governments accountable can allow you to be an even bigger part of the solution. Want to give the gift of a gift? Try donating here: Fair Labor Association, Amnesty International, Ethical Consumer, Fair Trade USA, and International Labor Forum are a few options.
This all takes a little more thought and a little more time than popping into the grocery store and grabbing a bunch of flowers and a box of chocolate from in front of the register, but isn’t showing your love for someone all about the thought and effort? Spend a little more effort, spend a little more money and maybe even spent a little time discussing this with your partner. Ethical buying can and should be everyday, not just on Valentine’s Day!