Two pie charts showing the carbon emissions of both fresh and faux flowers. The first pie chart is for fresh flowers and shows about 80% of emissions are from the production of fresh flowers. The second pie chart shows almost 100% of carbon emissions from faux flowers comes from production.

Eco-Friendly Wedding Flowers: Carbon Footprint of Fresh vs. Faux

Rosaprima is the largest rose farm in Ecuador, growing and distributing over 100 million stems of roses per year. They are a leader in eco-friendly wedding flowers and are constantly investing in new technologies and methods to reduce their environmental impact, including a recent project to install a skyline zip cable system which will save three million gallons of water annually, and an advanced pest monitoring system allowing for minimal and localized application of pesticides.(1)

 

But even with these top-of-the-line technological advances, are fresh-cut flowers the greener choice? Or are reusable faux flowers, like most reusable goods, the better option? The analysis is complex and depends on many variables, but the short answer is that reusable faux flowers produce less carbon emissions only if they are reused multiple times

 

Here is a look at some of the biggest sources of greenhouse pollution when it comes to fresh vs. faux so you can make an informed decision about the carbon footprint of your event. Although this analysis is not intended to be all-encompassing, it is a good place to start for basic information on the environmental impact of fresh and faux flowers.

Production

Manufacturing accounts for over 90% of total greenhouse gas pollution during the lifetime of a faux flower bouquet. (2) Although some faux flowers are manufactured from genuine silk, most are created from oil-based plastics, polyester fabric, and latex. (3) Plastic is an energy-intensive material. It is a fossil fuel in another form, so it is no surprise the production phase results in significant pollution. 

 

(Note: Because faux flowers are rarely manufactured from actual silk, this material was not included in this analysis.) Although it depends on the specific manufacturing processes, facility, and materials used, the manufacturing of an average size faux flower bouquet produces 29.1 kg CO2e. (4)

 

In contrast, growing a fresh flower bouquet has a significantly smaller carbon footprint, despite 45% of cut flowers dying before they are sold. (5) Like faux, the exact carbon footprint relies heavily on the practices of the facility, but the production of an average size bouquet results in emissions of 10.4 kg CO2e. (4) (although a study that investigated locally grown flowers in the UK reported just 6.7 kg CO2e). (6)  Growing fresh has a significantly lower emissions impact compared to manufacturing faux.

 

It is important to note this investigation does not analyze the environmental impact outside of greenhouse gas emissions. Water use, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, bleaches, and dyes used in the production of fresh and faux flowers can have a significant environmental impact depending on the practices of the facility. For example, 20% of chemicals sprayed on Colombian flowers are illegal in the US or Europe. (7) They have contaminated the soil and caused severe health problems for many workers. (8)

Two pie charts showing the carbon emissions of both fresh and faux flowers. The first pie chart is for fresh flowers and shows about 80% of emissions are from the production of fresh flowers. The second pie chart shows almost 100% of carbon emissions from faux flowers comes from production.

Transport

Whether you purchase fresh or faux, chances are the flowers travelled a long way to get to you. 80% of fresh flowers sold worldwide are grown outside the US. (9)  Similarly, most faux flowers are manufactured in Asia with many coming from Guangdong, China. 

 

The journey for fresh and faux flowers is not created equal. Although both typically travel by truck for the first and last leg of the journey, faux flowers make the majority of their trip by boat, while fresh flowers  must travel by airplane due to their short shelf life. Ideally, the bloom gets from field to vase in three to five days. (10)

 

Because faux flowers don’t have a shelf life, they can be boxed up and placed on ships. Air travel produces about 60 times more emissions than ship (Maritime shipping produces 10-15 grams of greenhouse emissions per ton-kilometer. Compare that to airplane emissions at 673-847 grams per ton-kilometer). (11)  And because airplane emissions are released into the atmosphere at such a high altitude, they are more damaging than those emitted on the ground. (12) 

 

During peak season in a typical year, 30 to 35 fully loaded planes fly from Bogotá to Miami each day to meet the flower demand of the U.S. market. (13) In addition, flowers often travel via refrigerated trucks to their final destinations which requires additional energy. Considering all factors, one study found 93.06% fewer CO2 emissions per shipment with faux flowers. (14) Our calculations found 94% less transport emissions for faux versus fresh.

Chart summarizing the carbon emissions of each step in the journey. a Fresh flower bouquets emissions come from truck, plane, and truck for a total of 1.35 kg CO2e produced per bouquet. For faux flowers the total emissions due to transport are 0.09 kg co2e.

Most fresh flowers are grown internationally and imported into the US, but domestic flower farms are on the rise. We recommend any couple considering fresh should also take a look at locally grown flowers as an option. Although many emission studies disagree on how much emission rates differ from internationally grown flowers, a study in the UK calculated a 90% decrease in emissions for locally grown flowers. (17) This estimate seems quite high compared to similar studies finding just a 20% decrease for locally grown flowers in Australia but each supplier is different. (18) We encourage all couples to do their own research on their region as so much varies by location. 

Bar graph showing emissions from transport for a fresh and faux flower bouquet. The emissions from fresh flowers appear to be over 10 times that of te faux flower bouquet. Clearly, most emissions come from the plane travel of the fresh flower bouquet.

Packaging

Although the impact of packaging on carbon emissions is near negligible, it is worth noting faux flowers typically ship from the manufacturer in cardboard boxes with little or no internal packaging. 

 

Alternatively, cut flowers are often wrapped in cellophane or other plastics inside of a cardboard box for transport. While cellophane is a sustainable bioplastic that breaks down in 2 to 4 months, other plastic films such as PVC and polypropylene are not biodegradable. (19)

Use

Fresh flowers have a lifespan of 7-12 days depending on the bloom. Water must be replenished every few days, and additional plastic in the form of floral foam and plastic vials for watering are often used for arranging. The additional plastic is near negligible in the context of carbon emissions, although it still has an impact.

 

Polyester and plastic are the go-to materials for faux flowers, which are durable and longer lasting. This allows for the reuse of faux flowers for years or even decades. Couples that use faux flowers for their wedding can sell the flowers after the event to another couple thus sharing the environmental impact. Similarly, faux floral rental is growing in popularity with up to 5 couples using the same faux flowers.

 

With the rental model comes additional carbon emissions in the form of additional packaging, facility energy consumption, and transport. Although not all rental companies focus on sustainability, Silk Stem Collective reuses cardboard packaging up to 5 times, operates an energy-efficient facility, and almost exclusively ships via ground transport. We calculate each additional rental only adds a carbon emission of 2 kg CO2e on average. 

 

The number of couples that will reuse the same faux flowers is the most significant factor when calculating carbon emissions. Here’s why: the high environmental cost to produce and transport the faux flowers can be spread out over all the couples that used them, so long as it replaces fresh flowers at their event.

 

Under average conditions, a faux flower bouquet must be rented only 2.5 times to break even with the climate impact of a fresh flower bouquet (although this can be lower depending on the blooms, practices of the floral farm, and transportation distance). Sadly, in North America a majority of purchased faux flowers are only used for one event before ending up in the trash.

Disposal

Faux flowers and greenery cannot be recycled. Most municipal recycling facilities do not have the technology needed to separate the various plastics and materials for recycling. At the end of their life, they are often re-homed as décor or kept for sentimental reasons, but this only prolongs the inevitable: disposal into a landfill. (20)

 

Many assume that because fresh flowers are “natural”, they are biodegradable and will break down into dirt once thrown away. This is accurate only if the fresh flowers are composted correctly and allowed to react with air, water, and microorganisms that break them down. If correctly composted, fresh flowers turn to nutrients that can be used by other plants, in the same way a fallen tree decomposes and nourishes other life. Composting is simple and can be as easy as cutting up spent flowers and mixing them in with the soil on the ground or putting them in municipal yard waste bins, if available. Some wedding venues or florists will even handle composting the flowers for couples after the event. 

 

In reality, just 4% of cut flowers are composted correctly in the US. A majority end up in the trash. (21) Trashed flowers will not be able to break down the same way as composted flowers. Even though 1/3 of the contents of landfills are biodegradable, trash piles are so compacted that the trash cannot get enough oxygen, so it degrades anaerobically producing methane (CH4). Methane is a greenhouse gas with global warming potential approximately 85 times higher than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 20-year time period. (22)

Conclusion

So, which is greener: fresh or faux?

 

For single use, fresh flowers are the greener floral option. From production to disposal, a faux flower bouquet that is only used once is responsible for about 2.5 times more greenhouse gas pollution. Because the emissions in manufacturing are so significant, the faux flowers must be reused by multiple couples to break even.

Bar graph showing carbon emissions of fresh flowers and faux flowers after a single use, two uses, three uses, four uses, and 5 uses. The faux flower (single use) bar is the highest by far but the bar representing each use steadily decreases.

In cases of faux flower rental, reusable faux flowers produce less carbon emissions because they are reused multiple times. Through Silk Stem Collective, we can rent a faux flower bouquet an average of 5 times before the flowers need to be retired. Taking into account the additional emissions for each rental including ground shipping both ways, packaging, and the impact of our facility, each of the five couples’ impact is 103 kgCO2eq which is a 50% smaller carbon footprint per couple compared to fresh. In this case, it is much greener to rent faux.

 

Of course, your choice of flowers is certainly not the most climate significant choice you’ll make when wedding planning, but every bit counts. The average impact of fresh wedding flowers is 206 kgCO2eq. For perspective, this is equivalent to driving 585 miles in a standard car. (23)

 

It all comes down to intentionality. There is no “perfect” option when it comes to wedding flowers (besides having none at all) and every situation is so unique. Some growers are more environmentally friendly than others (like Rosaprima in the beginning of this article). If choosing fresh, consider locally grown if that makes sense in your region, organically fertilized, in-season blooms that do not use floral foam or plastic packaging. Ideally, source flowers grown outside that do not require a heated or artificially lit greenhouse. Likewise, if you are choosing faux, borrowing the flowers from a rental company or purchasing them used from another couple is the most eco-friendly option. If you are purchasing them, have a plan for how you will pass them off to the next couple after your event. 

 

You can always try a nontraditional option as well. Living plants, paper flowers, and flowers made from reclaimed materials are all growing in popularity. Although little information is available on the life cycle analysis of these options, they may be an even greener choice.

 

This article is just the beginning. Our full emission study is in the works. Email Support@SilkStemCollective.com if you would like a copy.

Sources:

  1.       Rosaprima International. “PrimaVision Annual Edition 2019.” Rosaprima.Com, Rosaprima International, 2019, rosaprima.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/revista-Rosaprima_ING-Pages_compressed.pdf.
  2.       “What Is the Environmental Impact of My Wedding?” Less Stuff – More Meaning, 10 Mar. 2021, lessstuffmoremeaning.org/weddingfootprintcalculator.
  3.       “How Artificial Flower Is Made – Material, Manufacture, Making, History, Used, Processing, Parts, Industry, Machine, History.” Madehow.Com, www.madehow.com/Volume-5/Artificial-Flower.html. Accessed 17 June 2021.
  4.       “What Is the Environmental Impact of My Wedding?” Less Stuff – More Meaning, 10 Mar. 2021, lessstuffmoremeaning.org/weddingfootprintcalculator.
  5.       Petal Republic Team. “Floristry and Floriculture Industry Statistics & Trends (2021).” Petal Republic, 16 Apr. 2021, www.petalrepublic.com/floristry-and-floriculture-statistics/#:%7E:text=9)-,Waste%20in%20flower%20production%3A,before%20they%20are%20even%20sold.
  6.       “What We Do to Reduce the CO2 Impact of Our Flowers.” Bloomon, shop.bloomon.co.uk/blogs/floral-stories/what-we-do-to-reduce-the-co2-impact-of-our-flowers. Accessed 17 June 2021.
  7.       “A Rose Is [Not] a Rose.” Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, 21 Jan. 2014, laborrights.org/creating-a-sweatfree-world/fairness-in-flowers/news/11316.
  8.       Taylor, David A. “An ugly picture for flower workers and their children.” Environmental health perspectives vol. 114,8 (2006): A463. doi:10.1289/ehp.114-a463a
  9.       Flechas, Joey, and Alfonso Chardy. “Where Did These Valentine’s Day Flowers Come from? The Airport, Sweetheart.” Miami Herald [Miami, Florida], 3 Feb. 2017, www.miamiherald.com/living/article132374309.html.
  10.   Davidson, Ros. “The Environmental Impact of Cut Flowers? Not so Rosy.” Ideas.Ted.Com, 6 May 2021, ideas.ted.com/the-environmental-impact-of-cut-flowers-not-so-rosy.
  11.   OECD (2008), OECD Observer, Volume 2008 Issue 2, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/observer-v2008-2-en.
  12.   Bannon, Eoin. “Aviation: 2 to 3 Times More Damaging to the Climate than Industry.” Transport & Environment, 2 June 2018, www.transportenvironment.org/news/aviation-2-3-times-more-damaging-climate-industry-claims.
  13.   Cantieri, Janice. “Temporary Beauty: The Environmental Impact of Cut Flowers.” Atmos, 2 Feb. 2021, atmos.earth/cut-flowers-environmental-carbon-cost-facts.
  14.   OECD (2008), OECD Observer, Volume 2008 Issue 2, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/observer-v2008-2-en.
  15.   Mathers, Jason. “Green Freight Math: How to Calculate Emissions for a Truck Move.” EDF+Business, 6 Apr. 2021, business.edf.org/insights/green-freight-math-how-to-calculate-emissions-for-a-truck-move.
  16.   “Cargo Emissions Calculator – Shipco Transport.” Shipco Transport, www.shipco.com/webapps/emm-calc/emission-calculator.html. Accessed 17 June 2021.
  17.   Flowers from the Farm. “The Carbon Footprint of Flowers.” Flowers from the Farm, 23 Apr. 2021, www.flowersfromthefarm.co.uk/learning-resources/the-carbon-footprint-of-flowers.
  18.   “What Is the Environmental Impact of My Wedding?” Less Stuff – More Meaning, 10 Mar. 2021, lessstuffmoremeaning.org/weddingfootprintcalculator.
  19.   “Sustainable Packaging Guide – Compostable Cellophane.” Elevate Packaging, 18 June 2020, elevatepackaging.com/blog/compostable-cellophane.
  20.   “Artificial Flowers.” Keep Truckee Green, www.keeptruckeegreen.org/recyclable/artificial-flowers. Accessed 17 June 2021.
  21.   “National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling.” US EPA, 4 May 2021, www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/national-overview-facts-and-figures-materials#composting.
  22.   “Organic Materials Management and Climate Change.” Cal Recycle, www.calrecycle.ca.gov/climate/organics. Accessed 17 June 2021.
  23.   “Calculate Your Driving Emissions.” Shrink That Footprint, shrinkthatfootprint.com/calculate-your-driving-emissions. Accessed 17 June 2021.

Notes on Methods:

 

Like any emissions analysis, we needed to make assumptions based on available studies and data. Studies vary significantly, especially on the manufacturing process of faux flowers. 

 

We must acknowledge most of the information available on the life cycle of fresh and faux flowers either comes from a fresh flower retailer or a faux flower retailer. Naturally, both have bias. Wherever possible we used nonbiased sources but we did need to use the data presented by these biased parties, so we consulted and compared both sides equally.

 

Though we’ve tried to employ the most likely estimates of emissions where possible, information varies significantly regarding the production methods used by both flower farm and faux flower factories. Greenhouse gas impact varies so significantly depending on the facility resulting in a wide margin of error for the estimates presented here. We have more work to do and are in the process of a full LCA study but until then, this is the most cumulative analysis of the data to date.

 

An average bouquet is assumed to be a mixed bouquet of Focal Flower, Secondary Flower, Filler, and Greens with 20 stems

Environmental impact of fresh flowers infographic
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