Hey Bud, Buying Organic for Valentine’s Day?

Sustainable flower brands say 'yes,' but the politically correct bouquet is still a ways off

Headshot of Robert Klara

As anyone who’s ever plunked down $100 for a bunch of long-stemmed roses quickly figures out, flowers are big business in this country—a $32.1 billion business, to be exact. And Valentine’s Day (psst, hey Romeo, it’s Thursday) is when floral brands do 40 percent of their dollar volume: the sweetest-smelling day of the fiscal year. But while most of the business goes to petal-pushers like 1-800-Flowers, an emerging coterie of politically correct purveyors are gaining market share. Yes, you guessed it, organic flowers are what the hip romancers are giving this year.

“Our catalog of eco-friendly flowers continues to grow, and the purchase of organic flowers will continue to increase,” said Jonathan Greene, president of online floral shop The Grower’s Box. “Affluent people who care about the environment is a $200 billion consumer base, and those are our core customers,” said Robert McLaughlin, CEO of Organic Bouquet, which just announced a partnership with celeb Kathy Ireland to sell a line of eco-responsible bouquets. McLaughlin’s business is up 2 percent over last year, and that’s not just from the Prius-driving crowd. “We’re definitely seeing interest with more mainstream consumers,” added Keriann Koeman, co-owner of organic bulb seller EcoTulips. “Just as consumers want to know their chocolate is fair-trade, flowers should also have a scale.”

Consumer awareness of product sourcing is only logical. Remember all that bad PR over the Chinese workhouses that make the iPad? Well, flowers aren’t a pretty picture either. An estimated 80 percent of flowers sold in the U.S. come from farms in Colombia and Ecuador, some of which have dismal records of pesticide use and exploitative labor practices. A 2012 story in The Atlantic estimated there’s a one in 12 chance the flowers you buy up here were cut by a child worker down there.

Organic Bouquet’s McLaughlin said that, while socially and ecologically responsible flower brands (most of which display a tag from a verifier such as Veriflora) cannot afford the marketing blitzes that the big outfits mount, his best marketing tool is the news. “Each time there’s a story about labor abuses and polluted milk from China, it raises awareness,” he said. “We find that consumers want to know about the products they buy.” And as far as the higher cost associated with most eco-friendly products, Organic Bouquet uses part of its proceeds to help Ecuadorian growers convert to responsible practices, both for the land and the people working it.

But according to the Organic Trade Organization, organic flowers were only a $48 million business in 2011, so awareness will need to grow a lot more before the big brands get nervous. “The organic concept has more hype than reality,” said floral marketing consultant Tom Prince. “Sure, consumers want environmentally friendly floral products, but they do not want insect-related blemishes on flower buds or fungus on foliage.”

Still, organic flowers from The Grower’s Box show no signs of that stuff, and Greene is still confident. “Valentine’s Day customers will be looking for eco-friendly origins of the flowers they purchase,” he said.

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.