In the dark winter days between Christmas and Easter, Valentine’s Day is a time to remind your loved ones how much they mean to you, and many choose to do so by sending cards or flowers, or perhaps by buying their special someone a present. The sentimental effect this has on the recipient is easily understood, but environmental impact may pass unnoticed. Specifically, this impact can be divided into two main categories – the energy required to produce the goods bought by consumers and the waste that these items create after the day is over. Here, I’ll outline a few of the major issues within each of these broad categories, as well as provide suggestions and alternatives for how to minimise your environmental impact this Valentine’s Day. This way you can say ‘I love you’ to the planet as well as your Valentine!
Producing presents and flourishing flowers
Gifts are a standard consumer good, produced year-round for many occasions other than Valentine’s Day. However, the 14th of February becomes a day when the pressure to give a gift for a loved one results in a surge of consumerism. The most common presents exchanged on Valentine’s Day are items of jewellery, chocolates and flowers, each of which has the potential to impact the environment at varying stages of manufacture. Cards represent a whole other class of environmental impact, which I’ll come to in the next section. It’s important to remember that while these negative impacts can be great, they don’t have to be, so take on board the guidelines for choosing eco-friendly Valentine’s Day presents so you can still celebrate the day in style!
Jewelry: ‘Nothing says I love you like diamonds’; De Beers’ slogan captures perfectly our society’s romantic fascination with gemstones. However, what few of us realise is how gritty, environmentally degrading, and often socially and ecologically exploitative it can be to extract precious stones and metals. The social impacts of the diamond trade in Africa is becoming better known to the public, thanks to movies such as ‘Blood Diamond’. Still less well publicised is the equally horrific environmental destruction that can follow in the wake of mining. For example, one technique still widely used for mining gold and silver involves pouring a cyanide solution over the ore-containing rock. Sulphuric acid then removes the excess mineral, leaving just a sludge of the precious metal. However, the run-off can still be extremely hazardous, and can infiltrate water cachement areas as well as damage wetland ecosystems. Mining for gemstones can also produce environmental side effects, in terms of erosion from hydraulic and hard-rock mining, but also from the infrastructure required to support a working mine, which can involve destroying tracts of forest and unsustainable hunting to house and feed mine workers. This does not mean that we should all forgo wearing jewellery; instead, we must be more aware of the techniques used to produce our necklaces, earrings and rings, and insist that they conform to international standards for environmental and social responsibility. The Council for Responsible Jewellery Practices represents a consortium of gold and diamond produces committed to ensuring that these standards are met by all their members. Similarly, Green Karat is dedicated to responsibly produced jewellery, with items available for purchase online.
Chocolates: The production line resulting in a box of delicious chocolates can also have unexpected environmental effects. Cocoa production is confined to the tropics, with the result that much of the world’s chocolate originates in developing countries. Again, there are a myriad of social issues associated with cocoa production (such as the use of child labour to pick cocoa beans in the Cote d’Ivoire) as well as negative environmental impacts, such as the conversion of vast areas of natural landscape into cocoa plantations, with a resulting loss in biodiversity and increased threat of extinction for many tropical species. Closer to home, in conventionally cultivated cocoa, there is a risk of pesticide residue being present in the final wrapped product. Although low in concentration, these chemicals can still be potent and hazardous to human health. The EPA even allows certain levels of various toxins to be present in cocoa powder, despite the known risks. One way to avoid promoting the social and environmental impacts is to buy certified organic, Fair Trade chocolate. Many of these producers are also committed to integrated approaches to plantation farming, which protect biodiversity loss. An example of such a product is Endangered Species Chocolate which explains and executes an integrated and socially responsible approach to chocolate production.
Flowers: A bunch of red roses is, and will always be, a perennially potent image of Valentine’s Day. The romantic effect might be somewhat lessened if buyers knew the extent of cultivation required of cut flowers, together with the subsequent social and environmental consequences. The cut flower industry is worth $16 billion annually in the United States alone, and flowers are among the most pesticide-dependent of crops. As with jewels and chocolate, the majority of cut flowers in the US come from less economically developed countries, with 60% being provided by Ecuador alone. The use of pesticides is detrimental to the workers’ health, as well as to the delicate ecosystems bordering on the flower plantations, which are being degrading through expansion of the flower farms as well as pesticide run-off. Furthermore, the energy required to transport the cut blooms is enormous; the air-conditioning alone needed to keep the flowers fresh produces significant carbon emissions. The good news is that the flower industry has recognised the need to go green, and the increase of organic and sustainable flowers has followed accordingly. There are various labels to look out for when buying flowers; ‘Veriflora’ and ‘Eco-Bouquet’ signify that the flowers were produced sustainably; the USDA has the power to certify flowers as organic. Furthermore, at the growers’ level, there exist organisations in Colombia and Ecuador which also certify their products. Organic Bouquet only sells products certified by all of the above, and also promises to offset the carbon footprint of any flowers it transports.
What to do with the waste? Remembering the 3 Rs!
The 3 Rs are a standard environmentalist mantra, but it’s worth remembering them in particularly in the context of Valentine’s Day, when waste from wrapping paper and cards can build up quickly. Standing for Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, each can be applied to Valentine’s Day to reduce your environmental impact this holiday.
Reduce: Why send a paper card when an e-card says it just as well? Electronically sending Valentine’s greetings can be easily personalised, and delivered in an instant, so you don’t have to worry about the mail coming late on the 14th!
Reuse: When your partner carefully wraps a present for you, don’t rip it up. Save the paper for another occasion, or even squirrel it away until Christmas. Or better, why not use yesterday’s newspaper or magazine as an alternative to wrapping paper?
Recycle: Paper items can easily be recycled, so don’t throw away old cards unnecessarily. Last year’s cards might even become incorporated into a new Valentine’s Day card the following year, as many card manufacturers are eager to use recycled materials. Great Green Goods has cards which are certified 30% post-consumer waste and are acid-free. Similarly, why not make your own Valentine’s Day card out of recycled goods? The recipient of such a personalised greeting is sure to appreciate the effort! CRAFT Magazine is running an online competition for the best Valentine’s Day card made using recycled materials.
In all, without too much trouble you can ensure that your Valentine’s Day this year means something special to your loved ones as well as the environment.