Promising trends are leading some industry analysts to compare sustainable floral to the organics industry of the early 1990s
Sustainable, organic and Fair Trade floral options are growing like weeds, according to industry experts, and with consumers becoming increasingly concerned about the environment, budding interest in these products offers retailers the opportunity to showcase another “green” category while maximizing floral department sales.
“It is something that over the past, I'd say, four or five years, has [shown] an amazing amount of growth,” said Holly Givens, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association, Greenfield, Mass.
“What I've noticed is that the availability of organic flowers is spreading to other venues — it might have been predominantly in farmers' markets and in mail order, and now it's starting to come into the retail, supermarket venues, which I think is good news, both for the people growing the flowers and for anybody who likes to stick their nose into the flower and take a big whiff, which is almost everybody.”
In 2005, organic flower sales represented $16 million in sales in the U.S., which was a 50% increase over sales in 2004. In 2003, organic flower sales were about $8 million, according to the most recent OTA data.
Although these figures remain a drop in the bucket of the U.S. retail floriculture industry — estimated to be almost $20 billion by the U.S. Department of Commerce — several trends point to a sunny outlook for the category.
“I think that within two years, it's going to be difficult to find flowers that aren't certified as sustainable, very difficult because I think that most of the major growers are either already certified under one of these programs, or are shortly going to be,” Terry Johnson, president of the Horticulture Marketing Group, Mission Viejo, Calif., told SN.
That's not to say that the category doesn't face its share of hurdles. Like organic cotton, organic flowers and ornamental plants aren't meant to be eaten, so unlike organic foods, shoppers won't be drawn to these products due to any concerns about their own health or the health of their families. Instead, marketing efforts must appeal to consumer concern for the environment and the working conditions in conventional cotton growing and conventional floriculture operations — two of the world's most pesticide-intensive industries.
A number of green labels are currently available for flowers, and hundreds of farms around the world are already certified under one sustainable label or another.
The VeriFlora label, managed by Scientific Certification Systems, Emeryville, Calif., an independent third-party auditor and certifier, applies to flowers and potted plants grown anywhere in the world that are being sold in the U.S. and certifies that the products were grown in ways that preserve the environment, ensure good working conditions and provide optimal flower quality, such as cold chain management. Organic practices at the farm level are used as well.
“The organic phenomenon, I would say, is the gateway to sustainability and sustainable agricultural practices,” said Ralph Crevoshay, vice president of marketing for food and agriculture for SCS, at the Latest Trends in Organic Floral Products seminar at this summer's Superfloral Show in Columbus, Ohio.
“It's the open door to a much broader spectrum of issues we want to address.”
The VeriFlora program launched on World Environmental Day in June 2005, and is now fully consistent with the Draft American National Standard for Trial Use (SCS-001) for Sustainable Agriculture. Since then, the program has experienced tremendous growth, especially this year.
“It's a young program, and yet interest in the VeriFlora program has just skyrocketed, both well among consumers, retailers and among flower growers and handlers,” said SCS spokesman Alexander Winslow.
Nearly 600 million stems have already been or are soon to be certified, making VeriFlora the most widely accepted sustainability certification label for floral products in North America, he said.
A number of retailers have already dipped their toes into environmentally friendly floral options. Some sought them out, while others inherited them through action on the supplier's part.
For seven years, Carson, Calif.-based Bristol Farms has carried Sun Valley products and B&H flowers, both of which just recently became VeriFlora certified. In turn, Bristol Farms now carries VeriFlora-certified flowers.
“I absolutely do see this category growing in the future, and it actually surprises me, because it's not a direction I was going,” said Alice Grazziani, floral director, Bristol Farms. “I wasn't headed in that direction, and it all of a sudden fell in my lap, so I guess it's doing business with the right vendors.
“I see some interest when I go out to stores, and when I talk to customers, they would really be excited and open to this line of product. We're learning every day; this is all new to us, and we're going to continue to support it.”
Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets does business only with floral suppliers that are aligned with the Florverde label, which was developed in 1996 by Aocolflores, the Colombian Association of Flower Exporters. The label applies to flowers grown in Colombia that have met standards of sustainable farming practices such as reducing pesticide use, including banning any not registered for use in the U.S. and the European Union, and conserving water, as well as standards for working conditions.
“Our Publix Premium Floral Bouquets are also grown this way,” Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous said.
“Additionally, we do business with EarthSmart, a company that has a recyclable sleeve for floral arrangements. It is our job and responsibility to be aware of changes in the marketplace and in our environment.”
Schenectady, N.Y.-based Price Chopper also added eco-friendly signature collection bouquets, which are Florverde certified, in March as a part of the retailer's campaign to promote organic and natural products throughout the store.
“Certainly the whole concept of [natural and organic] extends far beyond edible product itself, so the idea to provide eco-friendly bouquets to our customer in addition to everything else was a natural fit,” Price Chopper spokeswoman Mona Golub told SN in a recent interview (see “Price Chopper Expands Organics,” March 26, 2007, Page 55).
Similarly, Organic Bouquet, San Rafael, Calif., has been selling organic flowers through its online site since 2001. In 2004, the company broadened its product selection for a better and more sustainable future by including flowers grown under additional certification standards that include farming and harvesting methods such as “biodynamic,” “green label” and “wildcrafted.”
“When I started Organic Bouquet in 2001, there were no organic flowers to supply a national market,” said Gerald Prolman, chief executive officer of the company that has experienced nearly three times annual growth in recent years.
“Over the past few years we have developed sourcing in more than five countries to support our $100 million growth plan. Our business is growing as consumers become aware that there is a choice and retailers respond to their consumers' preferences for the best eco-options.”
There are 63 million educated and affluent consumers who are spending over $230 billion annually on socially and environmentally responsible products, according to Prolman, who said he believes organic flowers are following the same trend as organic produce in the early '90s.
“We are now accelerating towards an inevitable tipping point,” Prolman said.
“With increasing supplies of organic flowers in the pipeline, I envision a future in which retailers will insist that all flowers they merchandise will be sourced from farms that maintain the highest social and environmental standards. More growers will respond once they see a green light from visionary retail buyers who are environmentally committed. Demand at that point will then drive a complete shift in horticultural practices.”
Waiting for a green light from U.S. retailers is exactly what Transfair USA, Oakland, Calif., is doing right now.
Although Fair Trade-certified flowers are not yet available in the U.S. market, they have experienced positive growth in the European Union. Sales of Fair Trade flowers there between 2003 and 2006 experienced an average of 30% annual growth in retail sales, according to Anthony Marek, spokesman for Transfair USA, the Germany-based Fair Trade Labeling Organization's licensing initiative in the U.S.
Marek told SN that Transfair is fairly confident that retail distribution of Fair Trade-certified flowers in the U.S. will be under way around October, Fair Trade Month, ramping up to a large presence around Valentine's Day, 2008.
“We are aggressively exploring the distribution options and the supply chain options and also looking at potential retailers in the U.S. for Fair Trade floral,” said Marek.
“As of late July, no agreements have been signed, but we have been working with retailers and flower retailers — some of those are pure flower retailers, and some of those are well-known supermarket chains in the U.S. that have a national presence.”
Many people are comparing the Fair Trade-certified category's trends and growth to organics, and although it may be lagging a bit in terms of years, it's not in terms of growth, Marek said.
“For the flower folks, it makes a lot of sense to be able to offer Fair Trade-certified flowers, because they're giving their consumers another choice, they're giving the conscientious consumers another choice, and they're giving the farmers and the farm workers in the developing world a fair shake,” he added.
Some retailers may have been carrying VeriFlora-certified flowers and just realized it.
“Within the last two years, the availability of the number of stems in the marketplace that are certified sustainable, organic, etc., have grown exponentially,” said Johnson.
“So that means that more product is now available, and a lot of supermarkets may be selling sustainably grown flowers and not even know that they're doing it.”
For this reason, VeriFlora is developing a marketing initiative to increase brand awareness.
Because the program is young, its first couple of years were focused on developing standards, conducting audits on the floral farms and getting growers certified, Winslow of SCS said.
“Only this year, for the first time, have we begun to shift our focus onto all these retailers — in terms of who they are and what we can do with them,” Winslow said.
SCS began working with an outside firm, MasterTag, Montague, Mich., which has just now created a merchandising program for VeriFlora, providing merchandising and marketing materials such as stem tags, signage, labels for cut flowers and potted plants, and sleeves with the logo on them. MasterTag also provides a brochure with plans to implement these elements in a retail display.
“I believe that the greatest opportunity right now for retailers is to promote sustainable, organic or Fair Trade products to consumers and present them in the context of the value that can be realized through their purchase,” said Gerry Giorgio, creative director, MasterTag.
“They can tell this value story at the point of sale, when a person is there considering the product. It gives them a purpose and a reason to buy if they understand what the product is about.”
Bristol Farms plans to include an emphasis on promotion, Grazziani said.
“I think that once we promote this, people will open an eye and say, ‘Oh, OK, I think I'll maybe buy these flowers,’ because they're doing the right thing and they're helping out,” she said.
“So I'm going to definitely take advantage of any promotional materials that they have to offer to promote this product.”
Johnson said he doesn't believe most supermarkets are currently promoting sustainable-certified flowers as such, and he said value must be stated to the consumer through a notable point of differentiation between certified and non-certified products.
“The only way they can do that is if there's something at the point of sale that does differentiate the product, and one of the things that's probably in greater need to be implemented right now is that,” he said.
While distinguishing between certified and non-certified product, both options must include quality, Johnson said. He has stressed the importance of cold chain management and handling.
“It doesn't matter if it's certified or not, consumers are not going to be that excited about buying flowers that are not the best quality possible,” Johnson said.
“It's got to be a product that has value to them, and then they say, ‘Well, if it's a choice between quality flowers that aren't certified and quality that are certified, I think I'm going to choose the certified flowers,’ but they both have to be quality.”
There's much opportunity to be had in the sustainable, organic and Fair Trade floral category, industry experts agreed, and retailer interest appears to be piling up.
“It's going to take the commitment of a retailer or retailers to make this happen, and it's going to take a Kroger, Albertsons or Supervalu, somebody, to say that they want to jump into this, and once that happens, it can work pretty quickly,” Johnson said, predicting that within a year, most flowers will be grown under sustainable practices and that the marketing effort by VeriFlora will be very successful.
“I would say that by the next Superfloral Show you're going to see a lot of labels, signs in booths and a lot more selling materials available.”
Giorgio of MasterTag said he's seen increased demand from all retailers, requesting products that can be organic and sustainable.
“It's catching on in all industries,” said Giorgio.
“There's a developing ethos of a broader awareness of the impact consumer cultures are having on the planet. I think the future will see sustainability built into all products and aspects of our lives, because we don't have much choice.”
“This is the decade of the environment,” he said.
“It has to be, or else we will not have another chance to reverse things. There is a lot of attention on the environment today and, more than ever, consumers are receptive.”