Since the 1980s, there has been a consistent increase in the global demand for fresh cut flowers. While such flowers were previously purchased only by upper-income households, they have become a regular decorative feature in households with lower incomes. Although a variety of flowers are grown, roses are the main traded product, followed by carnations and chrysanthemums. The feminization of labor is deeply entrenched in the flower industry, which is characterized by high levels of young female employment. Women tend to occupy 60 to 90 percent of the jobs in the labor-intensive stages of flower production.
The commercialization of flowers began in Western Europe when the demand for tulips reached an all-time high in the middle of the seventeenth century. This triggered a massive speculation for tulips called the Great Tulip Mania. However, evolution of the flower industry into a global modern economic sector can be traced back to the 1970s. Prior to that, flower production was almost exclusively for consumption in the regions where it was produced. Production was also concentrated in the developed countries, and flowers were almost exclusively produced in the Netherlands, Japan, and the United States, which accounted for nearly 75 percent of production. While flowers produced in the United States and Japan were largely consumed locally, the Netherlands’ production served the European regional market. By the 1980s, however, developing countries, particularly in Africa and Latin America, had began producing cut flowers for the global export market. The Netherlands, however, still remains the largest flower consumer, exporter, and producer globally. Virtually no fresh flowers were imported to the United States before 1960, but the U.S. demand is now increasingly being met by imports from Latin America. California is the largest flower producing state, accounting for about 66 percent of U.S. production.
At the beginning of the new millennium, total global acreage allocated to flower production was 200,000 hectares, with the three main producing countries being the Netherlands, United States, and Japan. Germany is the largest of the six importing countries, followed by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, which account for nearly 80 percent of global imports. The expansion of commercial production of flowers in developing countries has catapulted the African, Caribbean, and Pacific regions into the global market as key players.
The changing nature of product varieties, production techniques, markets, and retailing arrangements also characterize the flower industry as a highly dynamic sector. The traditional point of sale for flowers has historically been florist shops, but these retailers are increasingly losing their customers to supermarkets and discount stores. Simultaneously, the Netherlands’ flower auctions, where the majority of flowers exported to and from Europe are traded, are being bypassed by supermarkets that buy large volumes of flowers directly from producers. With so many new sources of supply, intense competition has set in, leading to a downward spiraling of prices, particularly for roses. At the same time, the quality imperatives of the market have increased costs of production. Typically, costs of production tend to be pushed down to workers, most of whom work in precarious conditions—many are hired on a casual, low-paid basis, with no employment contracts and frequent exposure to pesticides.
The shift of flower production to the developing countries has increased worker exploitation and pesticide poisoning. In addition to the health hazards that the pesticides pose, the runoff of pesticides and fertilizers into streams and aquifers threatens already fragile water resources. As the industry becomes increasingly globalized, concerns are being raised about its social and environmental impacts. Having been the target of civil-society campaigns and media exposes for poor labor practices and environmentally damaging production processes, however, the industry appears poised to operate in a more socially and environmentally responsible manner. Flower producers now have to comply with a number of codes of conduct developed by their major market brokers, international organizations, and national industry associations.