Strides In Sustainability

Although this has been a low-key year in terms of hype surrounding sustainable initiatives, a great deal of progress has been made under the radar. More growers have completed certification programs and floriculture industry members have invested a great deal of time to help shape the development of national sustainable standards for agriculture.

In August, Ball Horticultural Co. launched Certified EcoSource–a program that promotes suppliers who have earned independent, third-party environmental certification, such as VeriFlora, USDA Organic and MPS. Certified EcoSource gives Ball customers the option of buying unrooted cuttings, plugs and liners from a special group of certified suppliers who have demonstrated dedication to providing quality plants that are grown using earth-friendly practices. 

“During the past couple of years, several suppliers in North America have become certified, but Ball is the first to offer a complete sustainable supply chain,” says Kevin Roethle, Ball’s senior supply manager. “The Certified EcoSource program allows customers to partner with industry-leading suppliers who share similar sustainable values. As additional Ball vendors earn environmental certifications, we’ll add them to our resource list.”

With more consumers and retailers seeking sustainable products, Ball says increasing numbers of its wholesale grower customers will seek to improve the eco-status of their businesses and production.

Blazing New Trails

In July, D.S. Cole Growers in Loudon, N.H., became the first greenhouse in the United States to earn the MPS-ABC environmental certificate. Based in Holland, MPS is a nonprofit organization developed by the Dutch floriculture industry to respond to environmental concerns and has been active in more than 50 countries. Participating growers document their fertilizer, energy and chemical use and waste management and achieve an A, B or C rating on a 100-point scale.

When asked why he chose to pursue MPS certification, the operation’s owner, Doug Cole, says, “A few years ago, sustainability certification became a hot topic. At that time Walmart was considering requiring its vendors to be certified by VeriFlora. I was president of OFA and had a good knowledge of how European growers worked with MPS for the last 15 years. MPS approached me about how they could get involved in the U.S. market. I decided to jump in with our company so we could see how it worked and to be able to compare the process with other certification choices available.”

The first year was spent tailoring the program to U.S. growers, setting up the correct pesticide names and measurement metrics. “We have products they don’t have in Europe and many have different names or forms,” Cole explains. “Most European growers don’t have as many crops as we do, let alone ways to grow crops. We take it for granted that in the same facility, we may grow on benches, on floors, with hand watering and with drip irrigation and ebb-and-flow. We have hanging baskets, outdoor space and we may be a propagator part of the year and a finished plant grower the rest of the year.”

Once the U.S.-friendly parameters and terms were set, Cole and other growers began sending in monthly usage of all pesticides, energy inputs, water and fertilizer. D.S. Cole Growers received a B rating after its first audit and is working toward A. The company is also considering pursuing MPS-GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification, which is more focused on labor and safety issues.

To become firmly established in the United States, more growers need to take on the process. “The more growers get involved, the more meaningful the data base will become,” Cole says. “For example, northern growers use less water than southern growers, but fuel usage will be the opposite for these regions. MPS works best when the system sets up standards based on the needs of growers in specific regions of the world.”

Gaining Momentum

VeriFlora, created by Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) in California, has emerged as the leading certification program for our industry in the United States. While it has really gained traction with consumers in fresh cut flowers, 14 potted plant growers are currently certified. In cut flower growing, more than 30 companies have been certified with 10 of them being in the United States and the rest in Central and South America. More than 1 billion stems and 115 million potted plants have been certified to date.

Linda Brown, executive vice president of SCS, has developed certification programs for many industries. She acknowledges sustainable cut flowers have gained a lot more consumer interest than potted plants. Other categories with greater consumer awareness include coffee, chocolate, wood products and Christmas trees. “It seems we’re not seeing the consumer pull-through yet in potted plants but it will play out over time in the horticultural sector,” she says. “Growers are self-initiating the process, becoming more efficient and meeting retailers’ expectations for things to come.”

VeriFlora recently received ISO-IEC 65 certification from the International Organization for Standardization. In addition to certifying growers, VeriFlora has certified floral wholesalers and approved materials manufacturers that supply inputs to growers, including BioWorks, Ellepot USA and Summit Plastics. These approvals are recommendations, not certifications, but VeriFlora is looking at certifying growing media companies to help growers choose more sustainable producers.

Pretty soon, VeriFlora will announce a preferred retailer program. “We want to promote retailers with a sales force that understands the social and economic considerations for growing and handling plants and flowers and share that with consumers,” Brown says.

One retailer we’ll all be watching as sustainable initiatives unfold is Walmart. “Its buyer scorecard/index is evolving and it is at the preliminary stages of delving into product lifecycle issues with its questionnaire for suppliers,” Brown says. “Walmart is a huge driver and can’t help but influence what’s going on.”

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