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In floristry, sustainable design is just approaching the horizon and unfortunately, is not practiced by most designers.  Because floral design is driven by aesthetics and cost, sustainable practices are not yet perceived to be a mainstream consumer demand.  To complicate things, the supply chain is structured in such a way that product information and knowledge is refined and disseminated based on aesthetics and cost, not on grower information and product management. Even when a designer has the best of intentions, it is sometimes difficult to gather enough information to truly know if a product is sustainable. In an interview last year, I remember being asked if a rose sold in London is more sustainable if it is grown in a local green house or if it is grown in Kenya and shipped to London via the Dutch flower markets. This of course was a trick question because it is probably the only measured comparison of sustainability in floriculture… and yes, the answer is contrived:  the Kenyan rose is more sustainable because it requires less fossil fuel to ship then the London greenhouses need to maintain appropriate temperature and lighting qualities to produce the same rose. So if the practice of sustainable floral design is so ill defined and immeasurable, how do we make an educated decision about how to go forward?

Philosophies of sustainable design range far and wide, but I am a steadfast believer in “eco-efficiency”, which simply means “doing more with less”. I borrow this term from William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things.  In their book, McDonough and Braungart skillfully account the history, politics, hurdles and breakthroughs of sustainable practice from the industrial revolution forward. This culminates in a proposed 5-step method for “putting eco-effectiveness into practice”.  Using this method as a guide, I will identify how eco-effectiveness can make its way into the world of floral design.

Step 1: “Get ‘free of’ known culprits.”

“Beginning to turn away from substances that are widely recognized as harmful is the step most individuals and industries take first as they move towards eco-effectiveness”.  McDonough and Braungart’s words seem obvious in a world of paraben-free, fragrance-free, no artificial colors or fillers marketing, but somehow the floral industry has yet to follow this trend.  The perishable nature of our product line has created a panicked culture in need of artificial preservation. Our society determines the quality of flowers by how long they last. With this, a slew of chemical preservatives, fixatives and age defying remedies are used daily to artificially extend the life of our flowers. The funny thing is these products don’t really work and if they do it is only to extend the life of the product for a very minimal time. The real reasons why flowers die quickly once in the hands of consumers are they have been out of water for too long, they naturally are short lived and sometimes they are just not kept clean.  Simply eliminating paints, dyes, fixatives and preservatives will go a long way towards eco-efficient design.

Another ‘known culprit’ is floral foam.  Floral foam is truly an ingenious invention. It is lightweight; it retains water that nourishes the flowers it holds; you can carve it, stack it, and even hang it upside down. Because of its versatile qualities and its economical cost, it has become a mainstay of the floral industry.  The problem with floral foam is it off-gases formaldehyde.  This is not new information.  I remember starting out in a flower shop 25 years ago and witnessing individuals develop respiratory problems, rashes and other ailments from persistent exposure to the dust floral foam produces in a dry state. Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for floral foams identify formaldehyde as an ingredient and also provide statistics on the potential of respiratory problems, rashes and even its association with certain types of cancer. Recently, major manufacturers have pulled this information from their websites and reluctantly provide it when legally required.  It is hard for a designer to eliminate floral foam from practice, but there are many old school materials and methods that can be reintroduced along with the potential of new aesthetics resulting from the effort to design with less.

Step 2: “Follow informed personal preferences.”

In the unchartered country of sustainable floristry, there are tons of products and methods available to fill our tool box but they all seem to significantly lack data on how they impact us and the environment we live in. Even though we often do not have enough information, decisions need to be made and we cannot wait for our out of date industry to catch up.  We must believe that informed personal efforts made toward sustainability are positive, even if they are only partially getting us to our goal. McDonough and Braungart championed the use of the “Four R’s:  Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Regulate”. Using the Four R’s, design solutions can be found that are intelligent, respectful of people and the environment and quite possibly more creative and fun than traditional methods.  Designs comprised of quality reusable and recyclable containers; the incorporation of plants that can live-on once the flowers have died or simply choosing to tie a hand-tie with raffia instead of a synthetic chenille pipe-cleaner are thoughtful decisions that make a big impact. Every technique and material chosen is an opportunity to simplify and do more with less.

 Step 3: “Creating a passive positive list.”

According to McDonough and Braungart, “this is the point at which design begins to become truly eco-effective” and I agree.  Although informed personal preferences guide us toward sustainable floristry, we must continue to go beyond what is readily available and conduct investigations to expose the positive and negative characteristics of the materials we use in our designs.  For example, Floral Adhesive is a big trend right now. Every conference and magazine on floral design will tell you that if you are not gluing your boutonnières and corsages, you are behind the times. Sure, it’s quicker and easier than wiring and taping all of your flowers but any sustainable designer (or really anyone) will know the second the tube is opened, there is nothing sustainable about this product.  Comprised of 50% Hexane and 20% Acetone, floral adhesives are considered highly toxic if inhaled or applied to the skin. According to a Material Safety Data Sheet of a prominent industry floral adhesive, “If (the product is)discarded in its original form, material may be regulated by Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) as a hazardous waste due to the characteristic of ignitability (D001). As a waste, this material may be subject to land disposal restrictions.”  

 I am very fortunate to have a background in architectural design and construction because it has helped me to develop a strategic method of material investigation.  As an architect, environmental sustainability along with health and safety regulations play big roles in determining what products can be used on a job. Specifications are written to limit and guide the contractor towards sustainable and healthful products which ultimately have to be submitted to and approved by the architect before they are allowed on the job site. This method of screening has taught me to intensely study materials as an integral part of my design process. In their book, McDonough and Braungart suggest the creation of 3 lists: the “X-List”, the “Gray List” and the “Positive List”.  This is a great model for all design industries.   The X-List should include the most problematic materials, particularly ones that have been observed to cause cancer and other potentially fatal conditions in humans. Formaldehyde should be at the top of this list for Floristry. Materials on the X-list should be completely eliminated immediately. Materials on the “Gray List” are problematic, but not as urgent as the X-List and can be phased out at a slower rate.  The “P-List or Positive List” contains materials that are defined as healthy and safe for use. This inventory process can “galvanize creativity” according to McDonough and Braungart. By eliminating the materials on the X-List and phasing out the Gray-List, designers will begin to experience a creative shift that will stimulate the development of new products and methods of design.

 Step 4: “Activate the positive list.”

At this point, the designer is ready to begin a new challenge. Using the positive list and new materials coming out of this paradigm shift, the face of floristry is ready for a big aesthetic change, one that is the result of eco-efficiency in action.  Is it possible that this can be as simple as flowers in a vase? Certainly, but it holds great potential for an exciting new world of design.

 Step 5: “Reinvent”

Once we have created new means and methods of designing with the positive list, we must challenge ourselves further. What is the potential of floral design in this new paradigm? Can designs become micro-environments that are ephemeral, alluring and producers of positive environmental effects? Isn’t that the actual effect of a flower in its natural form anyway? According to McDonough and Braungart, this phase has no end and holds the potential of “radically new possibilities”.

Keep following my series of articles on Sustainable Floristry 101 to help you navigate the green world of flowers:

Sustainable Floristry 101