Climate Change Logistics social value

Can you put a price on love?

Let;s talk about the cost of Valentine’s day. Do you know where your flowers have come from? Pablo Escobar does! Is it really worth celebrating? Hint, if you want to avoid Valentine’s day completely, you can head to Brazil where it doesn’t exist!

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This week we’re loved up, talking about Valentine’s day. From its origins to modern day big spending, through to tentative connections to Colombian drug cartels.

On the go? Why not listen to podcast episode where I discuss the article (click this link for the episode). You can listen on most platforms!

Origins of Valentine’s Day

So traditionally a feast day on the Christian calendar it is celebrated on the 14th February, to honour Saint Valentine. So, how did a day honouring an early Christian martyr turn into a worldwide celebration of love? There are a few theories.

The date occurs in very early spring, and so it was associated with “lovebirds” around 15th century Europe. In the 18th century, stories were circulated about the final words of the Saint. Before his execution, he wrote a farewell letter to the jailer’s daughter signing it “Your Valentine.”

A photo showing the oldest surviving Valentine's Day letter, held by the British Library, and dating back to the 15th century.
Oldest surviving Valentine’s Day letter in the English language. It was written by Margery Brews to her fiancé John Paston in February 1477 (Courtesy of the British Library)

In 18th England following postal reforms and the invention of the Penny Black stamp the cost of mailing came down significantly. Just a year later, in 1841, 400,000 Valentine’s letters were sent.

Spend to Love

Hong Kong are the biggest spenders globally on Valentine’s day gifts, though the highest spend per person is in the UK, Ireland and the US.

Around 190 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent in the United States each year, but it is declining.  A survey on suggests this is because of over-commercialisation and not having a Valentine. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year on Valentine’s for pets!

According to CNBC, 70% of Americans in relationships plan to buy a gifts for their Valentine, but expenditure can have consequences for those who can’t afford much.

“February 14 will come and go, but the negative effects of overspending will stick around much longer.”

Could this Valentine’s day be the biggest ever? Two years of lockdowns could mean a lot of people spend excessively to make up for the lost time. At the very least it will be bigger than last year, where spend on Valentine’s day in the UK was down from £1.45 billion in 2020 to £926 million in 2021. 

Grow Roses to Stop Pablos Escobar?

Flowers are a big deal for Valentine’s. Almost $2 billion dollars are spent each year on Valentine’s flowers in the United States alone. Do you know where they come from? In the US, the biggest source of flowers is Latin America, predominantly Colombia and Ecuador who are now some of the biggest exporters of flowers in the world.

The temperature conditions in the early months of the year make the mountainous regions of these countries ideal for the Valentine’s demand. Couple that with lower labour costs and a beneficial trade deal with the US and it makes this a great option for retailers.

What is this trade deal? Well, it came about because of the Narcos, in 1991. Pablo Escobar was creating his cocaine empire and the US congress passed the Andean Trade Preference Act, to encourage cocoa as an export by lifting import duties. The flower industry bloomed as a result.

Photo of flowers being tied together on process lines in Colombia.
Colombian workers getting Valentine’s flowers ready (Image courtesy of The Guardian )

The journeys these plants take to get to the retail shops is quite interesting. The flowers are stowed on passenger planes throughout the year. For Valentine’s, hundreds of cargo planes are chartered, up to 30 jets fly from Colombia to Miami every day in the few weeks before the big day. If you include the same number from Ecuador, that amounts to around 15,000 tonnes of flowers in 3 weeks.

In Miami the flowers are prepared and then put into refrigerated Heavy Goods Vehicles ready to be transported around the country, in a race against time.

Environmental Cost of Cut Flowers

So, why not just make them domestically? Isn’t that more sustainable than transporting them half way around the world? The energy input required to grow these roses in countries like the UK and the Netherlands have been shown to emit 6 times more CO2 than those grown in countries like Kenya. According to the WRI each cut-flower, from production to transport can result in up to 3kg of CO2 emissions.

If the roses are in demand and you grow them in the US where the weather conditions aren’t ideal, you need to greenhouse them and to keep the heaters on. There is no guarantee they will bloom in time, so you might have wasted all that energy if they bloom even a day late.

The demand for cut flowers throughout the year means that production processes are driven to be as efficient as possible. To shorten production cycles agrochemicals are added which negatively impact the soil and the local water supply. Flowers are not edible crops so there is less regulation on the types of pesticides used.

Photo of a Kenyan flower worker picking roses in a farm.
Roses from Kenya (Image courtesy of The Economist)

Kenya, where the cut-flower industry is worth almost $150 million per year, is one of the biggest exports from the country. There is huge controversy over the use of limited water supply in the country, where over half of water extracted each year is used for flowers. It’s a difficult balance.

Summary – Can you buy love?

Well, you can buy flowers, you can buy chocolates, you can spend spend spend. But it comes at more of a cost than you might think. Most flowers on the market today are imported and can be full of chemicals. So remember, take a look at the label, look at where your flowers came from and who grew them. The decision is yours.

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