Support 100 years of independent journalism.

12 February 2008updated 27 Sep 2015 5:20am

The Valentine’s Day challenge

Paul Evans finds that the quest for an ethically sound Valentine's present is far from clear cut

By Paul Evans

‘He used to give me roses, I wish he could again, but that was on the outside, and things were different then’ – so goes the poignant first verse of the theme tune to Australian TV classic Prisoner Cell Block H.

Poignant and curiously prescient because this Valentine’s Day the question is should we present our loved ones with a bunch of the usual?

In years past, we may have wrestled with the question of whether roses are a romantic cliché. Now, to compound our dilemma, we are assailed with the competing ethical implications of our purchase.

The Nag is an award-winning ethical website run by the campaigning group Anti Apathy.

It seeks to make it easy for us to live more ethically – and is urging the British public to eschew Kenyan roses this Valentine’s day.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A weekly round-up of The New Statesman's climate, environment and sustainability content. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

They claim that valuable water supplies are effectively being exported through the production process, and they also point to the environmental impact of pesticides, plastics and air miles.

According to The Nag lovers should woo one another with British snowdrops instead.

Anti Apathy’s Briony Greenhill argues that even Fairtrade roses have limited merit, because economies of scale in the flower industry mean companies in Kenya are overwhelmingly foreign-owned – perpetuating what she calls a “neo-colonial economic system”.

She believes that without a labelling scheme to specifically identify locally-owned farms, and those which use less water-intensive hydroponic techniques; there is no ethical choice.

But the Department for International Development (DfiD) has struck back, insisting that truly ethical consumers should lend their economic support to troubled Kenya.

“Everyone can make a difference on Valentine’s day, including to the lives of Kenyan farmers who, given the current political crisis in the country, have been working so hard in such difficult conditions to ensure their flowers reach the market in time for 14 February,” argues secretary of state, Douglas Alexander.

Kenya’s flower market provides a livelihood for over 100,000 people. Although DfiD concedes that pay levels are often too low for workers to invest in their futures, they are adamant that the answer to increasing their prosperity lies in supporting and not boycotting the industry.

DfiD also contests some of Anti Apathy’s claims on the environmental impact of buying Kenyan roses. “It’s important to remember that flowers flown in from Kenya aren’t grown in heated greenhouses so they use less energy than most of those produced in Europe,” says Alexander.

If the ethical quandary of Valentine’s day tells us anything – it is that the implications of our consumer choices are far from clear cut.

The “ethical consumer” needs to be an educated consumer, and must make up their own minds. Perhaps we should show some love this year, by taking a closer look at the impact of our purchases.

Topics in this article: