3 November 2021

A Carbon Neutral Flower Delivery Business

Last week, Petalon became certified as both a carbon neutral company and a supplier of carbon neutral products.

Reaching this point has been a long road for us and, along with COP26 currently taking place in Glasgow, this feels like an opportune moment to talk about our environmental responsibilities. We didn’t plan it this way but it just so happens that our work in this area has come to a head at exactly the same time world leaders are discussing how to un-mess up the planet.

We should start by admitting our fears when it comes to this discussion. Historically we have been hesitant to discuss the environmental impact of our products in open and honest terms because of the inevitable friction that follows. Our aim has been to try and make good decisions but still keep quiet about them in case people didn’t see what we were doing as “enough”. There is of course an irony here – those businesses that engage with the environment as part of their product are often criticised for overstating their credentials (“Green-Washing”) while those who do and say nothing receive far less criticism because they don’t bother starting the conversation. This creates impractically high standards for some small businesses that the larger ones can breeze past; yet another way in which it’s almost impossible for small businesses to make any money in our industry.

In the beginning, we were terrified of talking about the environment in pretty much any context. Instead we addressed it through our product where Florence and James saw certain aspects as non-negotiable. All packaging had to be recyclable or biodegradable from day one. This was a basic pre-requisite of doing business and anything less was irresponsible at best. All of our flowers were both collected and delivered by bike and we donated a proportion of our modest sales to bee conservation. Despite these good deeds, we were aware that we did not grow any of our own flowers and that the traders we bought them from at New Covent Garden Market were largely supplied from abroad. The big, nebulous world of imported flowers seemed impenetrable to us and we had no idea if the good things we were trying to do were a match for the environmental strain our suppliers caused.

In the face of this opacity we developed a basic principle – whenever we are presented with a practical decision with regards to the sustainability of the business, we try to improve. For example, as we grew enough to engage larger cardboard suppliers, we were able to source higher-quality fully recycled board that just wasn’t possible with the smaller suppliers. It costs more and it takes longer but once we could, we knew that we should. When we had to source a courier for our nationwide deliveries we chose the one that offered the carbon neutral service (you guessed it! More expensive).

Once we moved to Cornwall we were presented with “a biggie” of these decisions. The land that surrounded our farm was available for rent and we took the plunge to start growing our own flowers with the intention to trim our supply chain. Where previously these decisions had been mostly just financially challenging, something that you can accept as long as the business remains viable, what we had here was a challenge not just to our pockets but to our knowledge of growing flowers (zero), to our sense of endeavour and to the limits of our physical labour. Many exhausting months later and we’re proud to say we’re growing more and more of the flowers we supply right here, as well as offering many dedicated products that are entirely home-grown.

Once we’d achieved this, we felt that it was time to engage with the environmental issue head on. We engaged ClimatePartner to help us calculate all of the business’s emissions. This involved looking at all our various actions on site but also at where our imported flowers come from and crucially, where they end up. We can’t just assume that because the product is all compostable or recyclable that everyone is actually composting or recycling them. Well we could, but that would be cheating. Instead we assume the average behaviour and offset those monsters who put their cardboard in the black bin. If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it properly.

The end results were not merely interesting. They will inform our climate-oriented measures moving forward. It’ll come as no surprise that for our gift bouquets, the lion’s share of the carbon is generated in our supply chain. For the business’s core activities we have an extensive solar power setup here on the farm so our on-site emissions are very low. One fifth of our company emissions come from our staff who work remotely and the power they use at home. Another quarter comes from the fuel used by our staff who commute to the farm. Just over a quarter is attributed to the electronic devices (laptops, printers) we’ve bought. It’ll be second hand for us from now on!

With the calculations made we chose two projects to offset the carbon we are currently producing (plus an extra 10%, for good measure). In Britain we’re supporting a variety of afforestation programs across the country while in Nicaragua we’re supporting the planting of native giant clumping bamboo.

What now?

Just as we didn’t stop at recyclable packaging at our inception, this is not the end of our journey when it comes to our responsibility to the planet. Here on the farm we’re taking on more and more land that has previously been used for industrial agriculture. We’re seeding it with blends of crops that fix nutrients, bind soil and encourage the establishment of organic matter that has been blasted by tillage in the past. You can read a bit more on that here but one important point to make is that by using this method, we expect to add 8-10% organic matter to the soil. For every 1% of every acre on which we achieve this we sequester 8 tonnes of carbon. We aim to have 100 acres by the end of 2022. 100, multiplied by 10, multiplied by 8 is…. a lot of tonnes of carbon.

We also plan to make reductions in every area in which we currently produce carbon. For flowers this means growing more of our own. In the studio we have committed to only purchasing second hand electronics and we are subsidising the cost of any of our remote staff switching to a 100% renewable energy tariff. We are adjusting our packaging to encourage as many customers as possible to compost or recycle the product and continue to have a total ban on all third party materials in our boxes. Our remote location makes bicycles and public transport tricky but we are encouraging staff to carshare wherever possible. These commuting emissions are the ones we are finding it hardest to improve so suggestions are very welcome!

We’ve tried to summarise the process as succinctly as possible here. If you want more detail, you can find out much more via our reports on the ClimatePartner site. If you have any questions, suggestions or feedback please do email us.


Do you think you might have missed anything from your measurements?

It’s possible, yes. That’s why there’s a 10% buffer on top of our calculated emissions to account for anything that slips through the net.

Could you cut imported flowers out of your business entirely?

Probably not. Without having heated greenhouses or artificial lighting on site there are 3 months of the year where it isn’t possible for us to cut flowers. We want to be able to offer full time work to our staff year-round and a high-quality product to our customers in the Winter months.

Are imported flowers absolutely always completely terrible for the planet?

No. What makes them imported is only that they have crossed a border. Ours come from Holland by road (and tunnel). It’s about the same distance from us as Yorkshire. The greater issues is that some imported flowers come from places such as Israel, Colombia and Kenya before getting to Holland but even this is a more complex issue than you might think. In Colombia, flower growing is largely done outdoors in an industry that is female-dominated, two very good things. That those flowers then get on a plane is tricky to balance against those things. For Kenya flowers are one of the biggest exports of a country in which over a third of people live below the poverty line. We don’t have the answer, but it’s not as clear-cut as it can appear at first glance.

So, are you climate neutral now?

No. We are carbon neutral. Climate change is about more than just carbon, but it’s a good start.

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