By Briana Coonan
I discovered Farmgirl Flowers last Monday when I was hell bent on finding a florist that would take an order at 5:30pm for same day delivery. That may sound delusional but I’d just escaped an eleven-day nightmare in San Francisco apartment hunting, so I likely was. However, my efforts were not in vain. Farmgirl did it. Like it was no big deal.
Eager to share my new find with friends, I pulled up the website to grab details and ended up reading every word. I learned that above-and-beyond customer service is only the beginning of what makes Farmgirl Flowers an exceptional company. Founder and CEO Christina Stembel has built a socially and environmentally responsible business with a successful product, all while supporting the stakeholders that many floral companies exploit. My chance transaction with Farmgirl Flowers led to a fascinating exploration of the not-so-sustainable flower industry and one woman’s mission to make it right.
Christina Stembel is polished, professional, and passionate about her business. In the forty-five minutes we spent talking, I often found myself imagining her pitching a VC. In fact, the Indiana farm girl turned San Francisco transplant has been in talks with several potential investors since starting operations in November. The right match will be one that supports her dedication to the triple bottom line. She and her business partner recently turned down a sizable offer because they didn’t feel that they could trust the firm to stay true to their socially responsible values. She says, “All of the changes that they would’ve liked to make would’ve resulted in a lot more profit but completely taken away from our mission.” The heart of that mission is “doing the right thing” for their suppliers and the environment, stakeholders that haven’t traditionally fared well in the industry.
With US floral sales around $30 billion a year, and 77% of American cut flowers grown in California, you’d think the state’s flower industry would be flourishing. So why are so many California growers struggling to survive? The decline began two decades ago with the enactment of the Andean Trade Preferences and Drug Eradication Act, a free trade agreement between the US, Colombia, and Ecuador intended to provide the South American countries with economic alternatives to drug trafficking. The ATPDEA, in addition to millions of dollars in government subsidies, enabled the countries to take over the US market as the source of over 75% of all flowers sold here. Since 1992, 58% of large US flower operations have gone out of business. The ATPDEA expired in February, but despite lobbying from the California Cut Flower Commission among others, a renewal will likely pass in the coming weeks.
So Colombia can produce flowers more cheaply than we can. As Adam Smith would’ve said, let them have the market. We’ll buy their flowers for less with money earned doing something we do better. While unfortunate for California growers, isn’t this the inevitable outcome of a free market economy? Sure, but Christina firmly believes that things might be different in California if consumers were aware of what they’re really supporting when they buy imported flowers. “Most people have no idea what flowers are in season when, and they don’t realize that there’s a reason to care,” she sighs.
Christina’s focus groups have revealed that people want two main things from a florist: unique, pretty designs (that don’t “look like they’re from the eighties”) and affordability. Buying from a socially responsible company is important to them too; they just don’t know it yet, according to Christina. She views the flower industry today like the coffee and textile industries before their social and environmental impacts were widely scrutinized, explaining, “I don’t think anybody has any idea of the state of the flower industry right now. If they knew, I think they’d be upset.” She feels so strongly about this that she’d like to someday produce a short documentary on the industry. And what would her message be?
Many Colombian flower growers exploit their workers, who regularly work 70-hour work weeks at wages far below the national minimum wage (with no overtime pay) under lax worker safety rules. And the environmental impact is serious. Not only did that bouquet you sent your wife travel thousands of miles from an entirely different continent; it was also steeped in harmful chemicals to fake that freshness you could’ve found down the street. In fact, the International Labor Rights Fund and the Labor Education in the Americas Project found that 20% of the chemicals commonly used to import flowers are known carcinogens banned in the US, but somehow they’re allowed to enter when used in this manner. Lastly, here in the US, the packaging and delivery practices of many large retail florists are far from environmentally responsible.
Farmgirl Flowers is the only florist in the country (to their knowledge) that exclusively sells locally grown flowers. Ninety-five percent of them are organically grown. And they’re delivered to the customer within a day of being cut, no chemicals required. Bike couriers make the delivery, and they arrive in a reused vase or wrapped in burlap (provided for free from Ritual Coffee Roasters). Every time a customer chooses burlap (or donates a vase), Farmgirl makes a $1 donation to their current charity of choice. If you aren’t convinced yet, you will be now: a gorgeous bouquet of Farmgirl flowers is always just $25. You read that correctly. Twenty-five bucks to make someone’s day. As head floral designer, Christina ensures that arrangements are modern and unique, and based on the Yelp response, she’s doing it right. There may be only 19 reviews right now, but Farmgirl Flowers is the only company I’ve ever seen on Yelp with across the board five-star reviews, and the comments consistently praise the freshness and beauty of arrangements. How is this possible for $25? Farmgirl only offers one arrangement per day based on what’s in season and locally available, keeping their costs very low compared to competitors. To offer numerous arrangement options, competitors must import huge amounts of flowers, the vast majority of which will never sell. Their customers pay heavy markups to cover the expense of the wasted inventory. Not an issue at Farmgirl Flowers.
At this early stage in the business, Christina hasn’t developed a formal stakeholder engagement strategy, but informal dialogue is continuous and collaborative. “I think that everybody involved feels that they have a…voice…and I like that,” she says. “I’m definitely of the mindset that the more brains, the better. So everybody from contractors to bike couriers will email me with ideas they had or tell me what feedback they got from the deliveries. I love that. That’s where we get a lot of really good ideas and positive changes we can make.” And the conversation continues with additional stakeholders. Customers and potential investors inspired the decision to roll out additional size arrangements at higher price points later this summer. But don’t worry; the $25 burlap arrangement isn’t going anywhere. Christina believes that everyone should be able to send flowers to someone they love, and her modest profit margins prove that.
Daily entrenchment in business operations keeps Christina in touch with what may be her most important stakeholder of all, her growers, two of which “are just barely keeping their heads above water.” Five days a week she’s on the phone or on site with them, filled in on what’s going on at the farm, and consulted on her flower preferences. They actually plan their planting schedule for next year based on which flowers Christina requests. And those requests come directly from her customer engagement efforts. “I’m really close with my growers,” she says. That close relationship allows for the transparency that she feels is so key between partners, particularly in ensuring that the growers are paying fair wages. Farmgirl pays growers a fair price, and growers pay their employees a fair wage. The same goes for their delivery partner, Cupid Courier Collective. Not only does Christina pay them 100% of the delivery fee charged, she voluntarily pays a subsidy during these early months when business is less consistent.
Although her documentary may be a few years out, Christina doesn’t miss an opportunity to informally educate consumers in the meantime. She especially focuses on her corporate accounts, drawing on her past experience overseeing the events department at Stanford Law School. After learning the facts, “they’re floored,” she says. “They want to do the right thing, and maybe they’ve made a point to serve all organic food, but they hadn’t even thought about the flowers on the table.” She may have a long way to go in educating the community. Nevertheless, Farmgirl Flowers is growing faster than ever expected. In fact, they’re currently working with a popular magazine to offer a bouquet of the month to be shipped nationally. Of course, this presents a whole new sustainability challenge, but they’re already hard at work experimenting with a local packaging company. The latest achievement is a 44% reduction in packaging material when compared to competitors.
When I Googled “local florists” last week, I expected to place an order and move on. But Farmgirl Flowers sparked my curiosity and lead me on a full investigation of the flower industry and the company’s efforts to offer a responsible alternative to the big guys. I’m inspired by their unique mission and business model that’s so authentically shaped by stakeholder involvement. From producers to distributors, consumers to investors, the environment to the community, Christina Stembel has managed to please them all. As a result, San Franciscans have access to local, fresh flowers at an incredible price. Head to farmgirlflowers.com and surprise someone today. I can say from experience, it’s probably not too late.
Briana Coonan is an MBA in Design Strategy student at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. She loves to read, write, and talk about what she’s reading and writing. Find her on LinkedIn and join the conversation.