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The Driving Forces of Sustainability

Remember when organic labels appeared before an official organic definition? We are at the same moment with sustainability.

Sustainability can be thought of as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” as defined by the 1987 United Nations Brundtland Commission, yet details in this space are certainly lacking.

The semantic openness of sustainability is not something to be managed or eliminated, and it doesn’t lead to meaninglessness. Instead, this is a moving, living definition. For AFE’s floriculture sustainability project, we offer framings of pre-existing notions of sustainable development and use calls to action to transform theory into practice for stakeholders.At the same time, we have to be careful not to greenwash our products. Greenwashing is an unsupported claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly or have a greater positive environmental impact than what is true. Some of these products are marketed in green packaging or with a plant on the label to appeal to environmental consumers. Some common greenwashing terms are non-toxic, bio, earth-friendly, eco, certified green, or chemical-free. Greenwashing floriculture products will create bad press, and can betray and develop mistrust with consumers. As part of this project, we hope to assist businesses with using correct terminology and accurately represent the positive practices that floriculture firms are doing.The primary focus of AFE’s sustainability project is to remain at the 40,000-foot level of what is currently being done in the floriculture industry and what can facilitate sustainability and sustainable practices today and in the future.Aspects of SustainabilitySustainability does not just refer to environmental concerns but also economic prosperity and social well-being – referred to as the three pillars of sustainability, also first defined by the 1987 United Nations Brundtland Commission.Within the floriculture industry, the drivers align with one or more of the pillars of sustainability.Consumer demand A major reminder to the industry: Our consumers are in the driver’s seat, and how they spend their income can make or break our industry. Today’s consumers are interested and involved in how their products are being grown and where their products come from. From requesting more products that align with their personal values and being willing to pay more for them, to human rights concerns and awareness (who creates the products we are using), to social pressures of being conscious of the environment, consumers are changing the way they interact with companies, including in floriculture. How do we balance their desire for readily available goods at any point during the year with a desire for environmentally conscious products? This is a problem we will have to address at an industry level.Coming soonThe Floral Marketing Fund is releasing a study on Consumer Perceptions & Willingness to Pay for Sustainable Environmental Practices in the Floral Industry. This study aims to lay the groundwork for understanding consumer demand as it relates to sustainability. The full report and additional articles on consumer preferences with regards to sustainable practices will be available for free at floralmarketingfund.org/.Labor forceWhy do Millenials and Zoomers job hop so much? One of the reasons is that they are seeking a workplace experience that aligns with their personal values. This includes having a work-life balance and seeing commitment from their employer to their personal success and health. This also includes how businesses align themselves with public policies. Case in point: Some businesses are starting to incorporate sustainability plans and practices in their businesses because their employees are wanting and asking to lead these initiatives.Geo-political pressures The first thing that comes to mind for geo-political politics related to floriculture is peat production. The United Kingdom has banned the use of peat at the retail level starting this year, 2024. By 2028, peat usage in wholesale and growing capacities will also be banned. Other European and South American countries are following suit with regulations of their own. In fact, Dr. Jackson has spoken with the House Agriculture Committee on peat usage in the United States, and these discussions have a high impact on our industry and are spurred by public opinion and governmental regulation.Taking a look at an alternative for peat, coconut coir, we receive most of the coconut coir in the United States from Sri Lanka and South India. Within the past few years, the government of Sri Lanka has been taken over by a new party that is not supported well by its citizens. As a result, the government has restricted access to the exportation of their major industries. This includes coconut coir, and we have experienced shortages of coconut coir due to the consequences of their struggle.This goes without saying too much, but the Russian/Ukrainian War has affected the entire world in some capacity. We, in the United States, are relatively shielded from these effects, but most of Europe has not. Russia supplies a large amount of Western Europe’s natural gas supply. Greenhouse businesses in The Netherlands and Germany have had to close their doors because of stoppages by Russia to countries that do not support their efforts in the war, and it has caused citizens to decide if they wish to heat their house or the greenhouse. This places alternative fuel options squarely at the forefront and has driven new sustainability practices as a result.Environmental concern Environmental concerns are driven by the effects we visually see in the world. Climate change and associated water shortages are the driving forces for water and energy efficiency. These issues span managed environments from urban residential areas to agriculture production systems. Our industry must not only keep abreast of the changes but also evaluate its role in contributions to the planet’s changing climate. 
Technology treadmill A driver that straddles environmental and economic sustainability is the technology treadmill. The technology treadmill is the cycle of improving technology, reducing the cost of production, and increasing farm sizes which often results in cyclical behaviors of constant technology change. One example of this cyclical response is chemical introduction and retirement due to the development of pest resistance. Lighting, substrates, energy sources, recyclable pots, building materials – there are many examples of technology in our industry that are constantly changing and improving, and it’s also a driver for sustainability.Business efficiency Some floriculture businesses are engaging in what are considered sustainable practices, such as water conservation and reduced pesticide use because it is also good for their bottom line. (Remember, sustainability also includes economic and financial viability.) Other companies have expressed inertia to apply some environmentally sustainable practices because they lack social resources (where to get accurate information and evaluate if it’s useful for their business) or economic resources (what will this cost me? Are employee resources available for this new initiative?). Ultimately, sustainability must be viable for the business to succeed. When looking at an industry as a whole, companies have been pressured into applying sustainable practices because their competition is already employing the practice. And now, their customers expect these practices to occur at their business, too.Supply chain logistics Which form of transportation is the best? How do you define “best”? We seek to provide the freshest product possible while also being conscious of the monetary cost. Sea freight gained popularity before the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to maintain popularity after. There is another cost that is looming in the background: carbon credits and accounting. Transportation is a major cost of carbon emissions across the globe. European companies are beginning to pay attention to this, and North American companies will need to take heed. A major question remains: How can we provide products that are fresh, cost-effectively transported, and environmentally conscious?Concern for future generations This driver is a culmination of economic, environmental, and social impacts for the future, and it is propelled by individuals who wish to leave the world a better place for their children and grandchildren. And already, it is a common refrain we are hearing from floriculture industry members.

Sustainability Officers: We Want to Hear From You!

Help us identify key sustainability practices and opportunities in floriculture. The American Floral Endowment’s Sustainability Project aims to provide education and resources to the floral industry and make sustainability an accessible initiative for all segments of the industry. To complement our current efforts, we are looking for sustainability officers and related staff working in floriculture who are willing to share information about their company’s ongoing programs. This could include efforts in composting, pot recycling, alternative substrates and recycling, carbon footprinting, nutrient use, lighting sources, integrated pest management, water conservation, and other areas.If you’d like to share your company’s successes in sustainability or future goals, please email Amanda Solliday at asollid@ncsu.edu.


Attending Cultivate 2023?

Be sure to join us for our Sustainability Roundtable meeting on Tuesday, July 18, at 8:00 am.

Dr. Brian Jackson and Dr. Melinda Knuth of North Carolina State University are overseeing this project. Read more about the project here: https://endowment.org/sustainability/.

By Dr. Melinda Knuth, Amanda Solliday, and Dr. Brian Jackson