Valentine’s Day, with estimated sales of $15.7 billion, is a huge boon for retailers in an otherwise bleak economy, but if you’re a socially conscious consumer, finding one of the top-selling items — chocolate, jewelry or flowers — that fits your ideology may pose significant challenges.
From environmental concerns to labor rights to civil wars, American consumers may be hard-pressed to find ideologically pure valentines.
Take flowers, for example. Last year, the United States Customs and Border Protection processed 320.8 million cut flower stems from Jan. 1 to Feb. 14, with 66 percent of them coming from Colombia and 33 percent from Ecuador.
The lengthy transport on refrigerated planes and trucks burns fossil fuels, says Ellen Frost, owner of a floral design company in Baltimore that deals exclusively in locally grown flowers. Because of “cheap labor and lax environmental law,” growers in Latin America can produce flowers at a much lower cost, she says.
Availability is also an issue for consumers, Frost says. When you can buy a dozen roses at a gas station or from a stand on the side of the road, you may be less likely to go to your local farmer’s market to purchase blooms.
Consumers can look for the VeriFlora certification label, which guarantees farms are audited for sustainability measures and labor practices.
“We’ve worked with the flower industries and the growers to determine how we can get the freshest flowers… that will last for the consumer,” said Michael Keyes, certification manager for Scientific Certification Systems, the company that administers the VeriFlora program.
While consumers cannot control the supply chain, they can make informed decisions about the purchase.
“Certainly talk to their florist about their flowers and share your concerns with your florist and let them know exactly what you’re looking for,” said Jenny Scala, marketing director for the Society of American Florists.
Chocolate may seem like a sweet alternative but it may be bittersweet for the socially conscious consumer.
West Africa produces 70 percent of the world’s cocoa, according to a report by the World Cocoa Foundation, where reports of forced labor and child labor continue to emerge.
Some companies are working with independent third-party monitoring organizations to trace their supply chain and make sure that the farms where their cocoa is grown comply with international labor standards, Newman said.
Hershey’s, which produces more than 40 percent of chocolate consumed in the United States, does not use third-party verification, according to a report issued by the labor rights forum.
However, Kirk Saville, a Hershey’s spokesman, said the company focuses its efforts on educational programs in farming communities and partners with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to train farmers in West Africa in production techniques, market access and crop diversification.
At the upper end of the chocolate market, members of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association value knowing not only where their beans are grown, but also how they are harvested, said Mary Jo Stojak, association executive director.
Because of their focus on quality, she said, fine chocolate creators have a vested interest in the livelihoods of the farmers who grow their beans.
As with flowers, chocolate labeling also has shortcomings.
“Just because something has a fair trade or an organic label on it,” Stojak says, “how do you know that’s true unless you talk to the farmer?”
Jewelry is another popular Valentine’s Day option, but for some, this choice loses its luster when they consider the mining practices of diamonds, stones and metals.
The 2006 movie “Blood Diamond” called attention to the issue of “conflict-free” diamonds, or diamonds that were not mined by rebel groups in war-torn countries. Congress passed the Clean Diamond Trade Act, banning the importation of any diamond not certified by the Kimberley process that ensures their production does not finance insurgent groups.
Steve Samaras, owner of Zachary’s Jewelers in Annapolis, said some shoppers were concerned about conflict-free diamonds, but ethics sometimes took a backseat to price.
“When the ‘Blood Diamond’ movie came out, we had seminars that we were attending to sort of combat the fallout that we thought this movie may present to us,” he said. “And I tell you, it was our best Christmas ever.”