The Strawberry Hill Flower Festival - an 18th Century Setting for a Very Modern Message
A few months ago, back in February, I received a phone call from Leigh Chappell. I didn’t know her that well at the time (how things can change in just a few weeks), but when we met I’d enjoyed spending time in her company, and if I”m really honest that was the main reason I said yes to joining what seemed like quite a risky project! She told me she had been to a talk at Strawberry Hill House by Sir David Attenborough, who is a patron there, and had been so inspired by both his words and the location that it had got her to thinking whether she couldn’t bring the two things together - a floral exhibition aimed at sustainability in a beautiful setting. She had then run her idea past Janne Ford, who had given her some encouragement - again, I didn’t know Janne that well, but she struck me as eminently sensible in all ventures floral and I decided she couldn’t have racked up that many followers without knowing what she was doing, as well as talent, and so I saw this endorsement as a positive thing. So far, so good. That a venue such as Strawberry Hill, the splendid 18th Century former home of Horace Walpole, would even consider letting us use their venue was surely the greatest endorsement of all.
Leigh wanted to know if I would consider joining them to make a triumvirate (or whatever the matriarchal equivalent would have been in the first century B.C.), and before I knew it I had agreed. I can’t deny I was anxious at first. After all, we were not only putting a lot of our own time and costs into this to help Strawberry Hill attract visitors, we were also approaching talented florists and asking them to do the same. If it went horribly wrong we could we blacklisted by the flower world for some time to come. I sat at home, and I pondered….
Nevertheless, I drew up a list of names to add to those Janne and Leigh already had, and we set about the task of asking them all. We were surprised and delighted at just how many of them said yes. Some even suggested other people we might like to include. The remit was that there was to be no floral foam - after all Sir David Attenborough had inspired this, so a sea of plastic was a definite no no - and lots of local flowers. At this point, I was asked if I might give a talk on the subject of sustainability with the flower industry, with Sarah of Nettlewood Flowers also giving a talk on the life of a British flower grower, growing her flowers from seed and seeing them through to the final bouquet. Again, when I agreed, I hadn’t anticipated how many people would turn up to listen. And so I thought it might be a good thing to write up some of the notes on those slides that people at the back couldn’t see and set them within the context of all the beautiful work produced by the amazing florists, and growers who joined us. These were further complemented by the works of artists such as Isabel Dodd, Flora Roberts The Natural Dye Works and Jane Letters Ink.
Many florists I know have come to the industry after growing up in the countryside, and/ or finding inspiration from family members who had a love of flowers and gardening. Until very recently, I had lived in London my whole life, and for the last decade had sat at my desk, dreaming of flowers, with seeming no way out of the cycle of working long hours in an office to pay the interest on my mortgage. So I made do with trips to Columbia Road on a Sunday and pouring over flower books and saving photos from magazines of the country life I longed for. Then a series of events changed all of that, the kind that make you realise that the game may well be up and you never really got round to doing any of the things you wanted to. And so, whilst on sick leave, I ignored my boyfriend (now husband) and got a little brown dog and started to take long walks, first of all in Hackney, where I lived. I made friends quickly, including a lady called Katharine, whose dog was very keen on my dog, and vice versa, and so we took long walks together. She told me that she “used to dabble in fashion” but was now mainly an environmental and human rights campaigner. She taught me many things on our walks, but it was not until some dogs died shortly after the council sprayed glyphosate over London Fields, and posters went up all over the Borough in the unmistakable typeface of Katharine Hamnett, that I realised which Katharine I had been chatting to for so many months.
Through Katharine, I had already learnt a lot about the clothing industry and the terrible suffering of workers in sweat shops abroad. I learned about the use of chemicals in non organic cotton and listening to the Late Peter, Lord Melchett highlighting their plight of those GMO cotton farmers, I vowed never again to buy fast fashion. I ready Lucy Siegle’s book To Die For so that I could be further informed still.
But now I had the chance to take more positive action outside of just my own choices. I helped Katharine run her 38 Degrees campaign against the use of Glyphosate and herbicides within the Borough. After the All Party Parliamentary Group for Agrocology published the damning findings of the effects of Glyphosate, we joined up with the Pesticide Action Network, who were also very focussed in their work against neonicotinoids, and went to the Commons to meet with Caroline Lucas and Zac Goldsmith to see what could be done.
Before I left London, which I knew I had to do for health reasons - it was air pollution that so nearly finished me off - I joined a local group campaigning against the further development of Hackney Marshes. I was, by now, a committed environmentalist.
And so it happened, as is sometimes the way, that out of what seemed like a truly terrible event, there came a surprising number of good things. Having been forced to give up my job and to leave London due to ill health, a very generous redundancy pay off meant that I was able to invest some money in learning floral design from some very amazing talents indeed. The old me would have put the cash all in the bank, the new me decided to follow her dreams.
I attended a branding workshop where we were all asked to name the one thing about our flower business that we wanted to stand out above all others. For me, I knew it was the eco conscious element, but at the time I felt alone in a sea of other goals. I attended workshops, retreats and 1:1s, and whilst chicken wire and water were by now the norm for vases, many told me that for installations floral foam was needed, and not to make life difficult for myself. I bought one box of Oasis in 2016 and I never managed to finish it. To me it just felt wrong and I couldn’t bring myself to work with it.
Roll on three years, and the flower world is a very different place. Instagram is now teeming with images of works and installations proudly showing off the foam free techniques and mechanics of people’s works. #nofloralfoam is one of the most widely used hashtags and local flowers are favoured above all others. And this is a very, very wonderful thing. And in fact, it’s exactly what brought so many of us together for this Flower Festival.
It has been suggested that for some, the use of words such as “sustainable” and “eco” is but a marketing ploy, and it’s certainly fair to say that Greenwashing is a problem in this industry as in many others. As the demand for sustainable products increases, businesses realise that being green can be profitable. Greenwashing is a form of PR spin where companies make themselves look more eco-friendly than they are. This could be in the form of the hidden trade off: claiming a product is green based on a narrow set of attributes (e.g. foam free designs) when other attributes are not addressed (e.g. the carbon emissions from plane travel to reach the destination of the workshop have not been offset). Not providing evidence for eco-friendly claims is another problem as are poorly defined claims like 'natural'.
But equally, I want this piece to be a celebration of how much has been achieved so far, and to give credit to all the floral artists who came together to show their locally grown flowers in foam free structures. And so, for the rest of this piece, as I share more of the pieces from the exhibition, I want to emphasise all that has been achieved, as well as citing a few examples of things we could all (myself included - I still have some way to go) do to getting closer to achieving that Holy Grail of actual Sustainability. A sort of “we’ve come so far in a short space time, but boy do we still have work to do”. This exhibition, I feel, was the perfect starting point for such a sentiment.
For me, living my whole life with as little a footprint as possible is a long held personal goal. I feel that it's not enough just to limit sustainable goals to my business. I’ve given very careful consideration to my diet, to food waste, clothing, travel, energy usage etc. and I’m constantly looking for more ways to improve.
Within a floral business, however, there are many things to consider : transport, alternatives to herbicides and pesticides, composting, the use of plastic wrapping, responsible foraging are just some of them. Making sure that the values of people/ companies with whom I am collaborating are aligned to my own. Receiving an email from Daylesford asking me to be a guest florist was, for me, about as exciting as it gets, likewise doing a Christmas Press Event for People Tree. Diversity too - such an important subject that deserves a blog its own. How many models from photoshoots do you see are women (or men) of colour? When you plan your styled shoots do you use only the slimmest, most youthful models? To me it feels that, as an industry, our differences are woefully underrepresented. At some stage in the near future I’m going to write a series of blogs covering these issues in more details ,but for now I’m going to focus on four: British Flowers, No Floral Foam, No Pesticides, and Reducing Our Use Of All Plastics (after all, this started with David Attenborough so we really need to talk about the plastics!).
Before I made my way up to the podium and had what seemed like two agonising hours trying to find the right button to close the last presentation and find my own (t had been a while since I’d done this!), Sarah Whiting of Nettlewood Flowers gave the most wonderful, and joyous talk about British Flowers and her own experiences as a grower/ florist. The fact that much of the audience that night was made up of Sarah’s students from a nearby flower college is a testament to the esteem in which she is held by them.
Sarah is one of a few British Growers that I myself use - her flowers are simply stunning and I’ll never forget the buckets of gorgeous malopes that adorned a summer arranging class last year, luckily captured on camera for all eternity by Eva Nemeth. She supplies flowers to local florists as well as using them for her own events and workshops. I now know to book myself in well in advance of any class I may have to make sure I get my hands on the good stuff.
Using local, seasonal flowers reduces carbon footprint and avoids exploitation in the supply chain. I’m sure that many of us have heard figures suggesting that as much as 80% of the flowers we buy in the west are imported from countries such as The Netherlands, Kenya, Colombia, Vietnam and Ecuador. As well as the obvious carbon footprint involved, the supply chains are often murky at best and we are kept in the dark about what we consume - someone somewhere is almost certainly suffering for the sake of those roses.
One of the many joys of British Flowers is of course the transparency around their production. The flowers that I buy, as well as those from Nettlewood Flowers, come, are from Green and Gorgeous and Babylon Flowers and of course, The Real Flower Company. I’m so lucky to live just a mile from Green and Gorgeous where Rachel and Ash, farm the most incredible flowers that they sell from their garden gate on a Saturday. Living so close to them has made my commitment to a very low footprint rather easy in this respect.
The Real Flower Company is again another dependable source, not only during the summer but also in winter. I try extremely hard not to use flowers out of season, but when needs must, the Kenyan roses grown by them can be bought knowing that they operate under a Fair Trade ethos, their workers are treated well, and that the flowers are flown across on passenger planes rather than as cargo, therefore making the carbon footprint less than it might otherwise have been.
Mention should also be given to Flowers from the Farm, started by Gill Hodgson in 2011. Gill started the group to bring together a few flower growers to support each other and see how growing British flowers could become a commercial enterprise. It now has over 500 members, who run their businesses all of varying sizes and all for many different reasons. They all support and encourage each other because “we know that there is plenty of room for all of us and by helping and encouraging more growers it doesn’t mean we lose business to them it means British flowers become more easily available and we can encourage more people and florists to use and buy them”. If you want to see Community over Competition then this is surely it.
Within the exhibition, we were lucky enough to have grower florists such as Twisted Sisters, Wolves Lane Flower Company, Jane Flower Jane, Botanika Floral, Pigpen Flowers as well as Libby’s Flower Garden and There May be Bugs supplying flowers both to the shop and for the Influencer’s Event
Of course a problem of using seasonal British Flowers is that there is a lull between November and March (my beloved Amaryllises notwithstanding) and aside from foraging for Christmas wreaths, there is a serious dearth of flowers to be found. And this is where dried flowers step in. The festival also saw the use of many dried flowers, particularly in the works of Twisted Sisters and Botanical Tales.
100% natural and 100% reusable, Bex of Botanical Tales foraged and dried most of the stems used in this beautiful piece which was her vision for recreating a meadow in warm, hazy summer days. And I’ve come to see dried flowers as the floral equivalent of fermented foods - flowers are harvested when they are at their most bountiful and can be preserved and used at times when they are no longer freely available, filling in those “gaps” without the need to use non seasonal produce from further afield. This vision fitted in perfectly with our desire to highlight sustainability within the flower industry and is proof of just how stunning it can be!
And now to the other main message of our exhibition: no floral foam. A piece of floral foam can be cut into any shape, it is often found at the base of bouquets as an anchor, keeping flowers in formation and soaking up water to help them last longer. Sadly, it is also a non-biodegradable, oil-derived plastic material that is made with carcinogenic chemicals such as formaldehyde, phenol, heptane, barmium sulfate, and carbon black. Floral foam is always sent to landfill, (some people claim it’s compostable. It isn’t.) and will only ever break down into smaller pieces of plastic. It releases micro plastics and the inhalation of particles from foam or continued exposure to it is dangerous to the health of florists working with it and well as to the environment. It is wasteful and it is toxic..
The good news is that, as an industry, we are rapidly moving away from it and proudly publishing our own foam free creations on line.
There can surely be no better example than of large scale, foam free urn, than the stunner by Brigitte of Moss and Stone Floral Design in The Tribune at Strawberry Hill - and the foam free installations such as Fiona of Firenza Flowers staircase, and in fact every installation in the house showed just how beautiful and varied foam free creations can be Floral Evolution, Grace Mary Designs, Picking Posies, Sarah Saunders Studio, Aelisabet Flowers, Wild and Co Flowers, Louise Langdon Florals, Fig and Fern, Holly Bee Flowers and of course Leigh Chappell and Janne Ford - take a bow!
There are many other ways we can display flowers without foam, whether using window boxes for church window displays, groups of bud vases, free standing installations using chicken wire and so on. Anna Potter’s book, The Flower Fix, has a particularly fine index with examples. Ikebana books, too, are a great source of reference. Shoes Sato’s Ikebana: The Art of Arranging Flowers has an extensive section on tools and techniques with some really inspiring solutions. Likewise Japanese Ikebana for Every Season by Rie Imai and Yuji Ueno. There are many Instagram accounts sharing mechanics too, the most prolific being @nofloralfoam who shares ideas from florists around the world, and is well worth a look.
As well as using British flowers in our exhibition, we rather assumed that those we included would be free from pesticides and nasties. Many of the growers who exhibited at Strawberry Hill have written explicitly about their disdain for them. And yet, outside of our small confines, it is an irony that the floral industry is one of the biggest consumers of pesticides in the world.
Pesticides are one of the major issues when it comes to growing flowers; because we don’t eat them there is far less legislation when it comes to the pesticides used in flower production. The flower industry is one of the biggest consumers of pesticides in the world: in Colombia 12 different pesticides are used, Ethiopia use 120 pesticides that are on the WHO negative pesticide list, including toxic chemicals (which Kenya also still use) such as DDT and methyl bromide (an ozone-depleting chemical that is banned in countries like the US). Workers are rarely trained on how to use these pesticides properly, resulting in multiple health problems and damage to local eco-systems.
Of course, the use of pesticides isn’t limited to countries outside of the UK, it’s a problem here too, and one that we’ve known about for some time, but have been much slower than some of our European counterparts to act upon. The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Agroecology, Chaired by the Countess of Mar, met in the Houses of Parliament in London on June 18 2012, to discuss the possible harm caused by the world’s most popular herbicide – Roundup.
In what was one of the most comprehensive meetings ever held in Europe on Glyphosate and Roundup, experts from around the World gathered in London to share their expertise with the media, members of a number of UK political parties, NGO representatives and members of the general public.
The interest in the event was very high and Committee Room 10 of the Houses of Parliament was full to the rafters, with experts having travelled from as far away as Russia, China and the U.S., to listen to the four speakers give detailed presentations on how the unanswered questions surrounding the possible harm caused by Glyphosate and Roundup should be approached.
Glyphosate is the most widely used weed-killer in the world. It is often presented as a benign chemical which is inactivated in the soil. However this is far from the case. Glyphosate interferes with enzymes in plants and microbes because of its ability to chelate (bind) trace metals and by its antibiotic action (it is patented for both). Other chemicals used in formulated products sold to farmers and gardeners enhance its toxic effects.
This meeting examined how these properties of glyphosate impact on the health of humans, the soil and wildlife from residues and traces being detected in humans and the environment as use of glyphosate based weed-killers , such as Roundup, escalates. At the time of writing, in September 21019, glyphosate is banned or restricted in many countries but not, as yet, the UK, though it is banned from use by some Councils in Boroughs that have voted to go pesticide free. It’s something I’m going to write about again very soon once I’ve had a chance to do some more research.
Another topic I’ve been looking into a lot is plastic wastage. I’d say it is right up there with floral foam as a huge problem this industry faces. Unless one picks flowers oneself, flowers are almost certainly going to arrive in packaging of some sort. Some are better than others and use predominantly paper and cardboard, but many flowers that are purchased in the market come covered in plastic of some sort or another.
We know now that it’s a global crisis - Plastic is everywhere; it’s floating in our oceans, filling up landfills, breaking down into smaller pieces that make their way into every ecosystem and the food chain, and we need to do something about it.
For decades the problem has been ‘out of sight out of mind’ for the privileged few, as richer countries like the US and the UK have shipped plastic waste abroad. However, in 2017 China, who used to take 12.6 billion pounds of the world’s plastic waste annually without the infrastructure to effectively process it, stopped accepting all new imports. This has diverted waste to countries like India, Thailand, and Malaysia, which has caused its own set of issues to the point where Malaysia is now sending waste back to the countries it came from. The system, as it is, is clearly not working.
So what can we do about it, as a large body of florists who are ultimately responsible for huge amounts of plastic waste? At a recent panel talk on Sustainability in Floristry, the question was raised - what do we do about all the plastic films? Sadly, there was no call to arms on this one as there was for floral foam. My suggestions, however, would be these.
Firstly we catalogue the names and contact details of distributors of those flower retailers using said plastics, with a view to getting in touch with them. At the same time, we need to come up with a viable alternative. It’s not enough to tell companies what we don’t want, if we want to see change we need to be positive and tell them what we do want. This morning, Sainsburys announced that they are scrapping plastic wrapping on flower bouquets and instead one million fresh floral bunches and bouquets from the supermarket giant will be wrapped in recyclable paper and sealed with recyclable paper tape. How fantastic is that? And if they can do it, can we not encourage others to do the same?
Secondly, we should all be thinking about Plastic Offsetting initiatives.
One of the main organisations focusing on plastic offsetting is the social enterprise rePurpose. Their work, which is based in India, helps you understand your unique plastic footprint, prevents plastics from entering waterways or landfill, helps informal waste workers out of poverty, and guides you on the journey to reduce your plastic consumption at home too.
rePurpose was born out of a visit to Deonar East in Mumbai, Asia’s 2nd largest landfill. Each day 9000 metric tonnes of unsegregated waste enters Deonar East, but that’s not all you’ll find there.
Amongst the mountains of trash you’ll find waste pickers: workers who make a meagre living by scavenging the landfill with their bare hands for waste like plastic and metal to be sold for recycling. There are over 50 million of these informal waste workers around the world, who spend their entire lives dealing with the consequences of our overconsumption and waste. In India, a waste picker typically spends 12 hours a day scavenging to earn less than $5.
It’s a toxic occupation: life expectancy for those in the area of these dumps is a mere 39 years old (it’s 73.5 for the wider location), and sites like these often make the news when methane from food waste catches fire, causing collapses in the trash heap that can bury waste pickers alive, sometimes without being found for years.
rePurpose has found a way that made it easy and engaging for us to understand the waste we make, take responsibility for it, and reduce our footprint, while also helping these waste workers out of their current situation. I, for one, am certainly going to be trying it. How could I not?
And there it is. A précis of some of the things we can be doing within the floral industry to make our world a better, less toxic place.
It’s important that we help each other. Sharing of information is important, though to that I would add a small plea to credit your sources. On more than one occasion I’ve seen work I’ve done replicated to suit the author without even mention of that fact that they’d read my piece, and I can’t lie, it’s a bit disheartening. Equally, if you see an image that inspires you, why not stand in solidarity with that person? I do it often, perhaps it comes from years of academic research and extensive footnoting, but I’ve never had a response that wasn’t positive.
I’ve already mentioned how many wonderful florists are sharing their foam free mechanics so we can inspire each other to try more designs.
And if we can come together to write to companies about plastic packaging then even better.
I hope that this has helped a little, and over the coming months I’l be writing more about my thoughts and sharing some tips - I’m currently trying out chemical free products for my eco studio - and I hope they’ll be of interest too.
But for now, thanks for reading x