Selling a Sustainable Valentine: Four Promising Trends

Ironically, the backstories behind the most popular Valentine’s Day gifts—flowers, chocolate and jewelry—are not always warm and cuddly. Roses are often grown in far-flung corners of the world using water- and chemical-intensive methods before they’re shipped thousands of miles to consumers in the US and Europe. Conventional chocolate has unsavory connections to child labor, used for cocoa harvesting. And diamond mining in some parts of the world has a history tied to funding brutal wars.

But fortunately, socially-responsible entrepreneurs have in recent years seen ripe opportunities for sourcing and marketing these products in a sustainable, low-impact and conflict-free manner.

Flower power
Some roses have a very tainted past by the time they reach a vase on the mantle. Environmental groups have called out floriculturists in a number of regions, including Lake Naivasha in Kenya, where flower farms have contributed to water quantity and quality depletion.

In response, some supermarket buyers, rose-growers and international environmental groups are working together to develop more sustainable growing methods and to find ways that they can work with other users of the lake’s resources to balance the needs of the local people with the business interests to produce material from the region.

Transfair USA has also created certification process for flower growers, which ensures that flower workers are paid a fair wage and offered benefits, and that the growers environmental standards governing the use of pesticides and water. More than ten growers in Columbia, Kenya and Ecuador have achieved Transfair’s certified flower designation.

Still, there’s nothing that can be done to erase the many miles that flowers grown overseas must travel. This makes the floral offerings at farmer’s markets a great option for consumers, assuming the flowers are grown locally and with few or no pesticides. Of course, this won’t do much for most American consumers who can’t access a farmer’s market in mid-February. But there are some US-based growers, including California Organic Flowers, based in Chico, Calif. who ship organically-grown flowers.

Truly tasteful chocolate
Fair trade and sustainably sources chocolate is pretty hot these days—thanks in no small part to the raucous raised by environmentalists and human rights activists.

Fair trade chocolate is becoming as much a household phrase as fair trade coffee, and even the largest chocolate makers in the world have signified commitments to sustainability. And like coffee, chocolate is something for which consumers will pay a premium, so many small startups, from TCHO to Dagoba, seem to be finding their own sweet spots in the chocolate market.

Brilliant bling
Flowers and chocolate are lovely, but for serious gift-givers (and receivers), it’s about the bling. So in the past ten years, in the wake of growing consumer awareness abound the links between diamond extraction and warfare, in places such as Sierra Leone, an entire market based on conflict-free and environmentally-friendly jewelry has emerged. As with flowers and market, the focus here is on sourcing products using fair trade and low impact means, but there’s also a focus on refurbishing heirloom items, when possible, and on designing custom products.

The list of purveyors of conflict-free jewelry is long and growing, though perhaps the most widely-recognized is the San Francisco-based Brilliant Earth. It was co-founded in 2005 by Beth Gerstein and Eric Grossberg, who both knew that the demand for responsibly-sourced diamond jewelry was strong and growing stronger. Another SF jeweler, the Clarity Project, uses only ethically-sourced diamonds and reclaimed metals. It also invests all profits back into mining communities. But the movement toward conflict-free jewelry has extended well beyond these niche suppliers and into the mainstream market—and not just high-end sellers such as Tiffany’s. Even Walmart has gotten in on the act, saying it has set a goal to be able to full trace the origins of 10 percent of the gold, silver and diamond jewelry it sells.

All of which begs the question: says who? There is a United Nations effort called the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme which was set up ensure the origins of diamonds and prevent blood diamonds from entering the marketplace. But this group has been criticized for failing to kick out Zimbabwe, despite evidence that it has failed to meet the group’s standards, says Grossberg. One of the architects of the Kimberly Process recently left the organization, claiming it had become ineffective. Transfair USA, which, as noted, developed fair trade labeling programs for products including flowers and chocolate, is exploring the establishment of a similar program for diamonds. (Transfair also offers a Valentine’s Day Gift Guide.)

A sustained climax
A Valentine’s Day post would not be complete without making mention of a fourth encouraging trend: sustainable sex toys are getting—ahem—bigger! Even as far back as 2006, Treehugger was bringing important news about from fair trade, sustainably-made paddles (behave!) and solar-power vibrators. Four years later, some of those pleasure aides might just have lost their youthful vigor. Luckily, you can now recycle that sex toy.

Have yourself a merry little Valentine’s Day.

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to