Intern Column: Showing Love for Both Planet and People on Valentine’s Day

"The rose has thorns only for those who would gather it." Photo by Flickr user Parvin, CC BY-SA 2.0.
“The rose has thorns only for those who would gather it.” Photo by Flickr user Parvin, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Carolyn Hamburg is a senior studying Political Science and Environmental Studies with a certificate in Educational Policy Studies. Carolyn is passionate about all aspects of sustainability, but particularly the intersection between people and the environment. In the future, she hopes to work with sustainable business consulting, public transportation, or environmental justice (but preferably a combination of all three)!

Whether you celebrate Valentine’s Day, Palentine’s Day, Galentine’s Day, or completely ignore the holiday, there is no doubt that February 14th sends sales of chocolate and roses soaring. However, there are important historical, social, and environmental implications of these traditions. As we will see, the classic Valentine’s Day gifts of roses and chocolates are often unsustainable, but there are other ways of celebrating our loved ones on this holiday.

"Birth of Venus" (ca. 1485) by Sandro Botticelli. Public domain.
“Birth of Venus” (1485 ca.) by Sandro Botticelli. Public domain.

Why did roses become associated with Valentine’s Day? The connection between flowers and love goes back to the ancient goddesses of love, Aphrodite in Greece and Venus in Rome. One of their symbols was the rose, since roses embody beauty and fertility. However, the association between roses and Valentine’s Day did not take off until the late 19th century, when Victorian England promoted the “language of flowers” and the idea that red roses represented true love.1 The cut-flower industry developed in England around the same time, and by 2016, that industry was worth $33 billion, with the United States, the Netherlands, and Japan accounting for nearly half the world’s flower trade. Today, due to changing climatic conditions and low labor costs, the majority of cut-flower production occurs in Colombia, Kenya, Ecuador, and Ethiopia.2

Yet the rapid growth of the floriculture industry, coupled with increased demand for roses, has led to enormous environmental degradation. Since flowers are not edible crops, they are not subject to the more stringent pesticide regulations imposed on food crops. According to Human Rights Quarterly, “approximately one-fifth of the chemicals used on flowers in Global South countries are banned or untested in the United States.”3 The intensive water use required for cut flowers also places major strain on the environment, particularly for the countries that house the floriculture industry. For example, Lake Naivasha, in Kenya, has experienced severe water extraction, with more than half of that extraction dedicated to the flower industry.

Lake Naivasha, Kenya. Photo courtesy of Flickr user GRID-Arendal, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Lake Naivasha, Kenya. Photo courtesy of Flickr user GRID-Arendal, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

According to the Policy Forum, flower production has also encroached on land in Ethiopia, increasing from 100 hectares in the late 1990s to more than 1200 hectares in 2008, with almost 82% of the land dedicated to roses. Due to these environmental concerns, you may want to consider the effects of the flower industry before buying a large rose bouquet on Valentine’s Day.4

As with roses, chocolate’s ties to love and allure began early, with the ancient Aztec civilization. Due to the bloody Spanish colonization of the Aztecs, chocolate crossed the ocean in approximately 1528, where the delicacy was regarded as the “elixir of love throughout the elite in Europe.”5 However, chocolate’s popular association with Valentine’s Day did not take off until several centuries later. In 1868, Richard Cadbury—the owner of a British cocoa and chocolate company—created “Fancy Boxes” of chocolate specifically for the holiday. The heavily decorated lid of the box was shaped into a heart and filled with chocolate delights.6 After the chocolates had been consumed, the boxes could be used to store love letters or other precious signs of affection. Cadbury’s “Fancy Boxes” have stayed popular for generations; in the United States, 40 million heart-shaped chocolates were sold for Valentine’s Day in 2017.7

Cacao beans. Image courtesy of Pixabay.
Cocoa beans. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Like the flower industry, cocoa—the plant that creates our beloved chocolate—is often grown, harvested, and sold unsustainably. According to the World Cocoa Foundation, “over 65% of the global cocoa supply comes from the Ivory Coast and Ghana, two countries that have lost at least 2 million hectares of rainforest cover due to cocoa farming expansion.”  Similarly, South American cocoa-producing countries, such as Peru and Colombia, face rapid deforestation.8 There has been widespread documentation of child labor, slavery, and exploitation used to produce the high demand for cocoa.9 Finally, the warming planet increases hardship for the farmers and families that are dependent on cocoa farming, as drought and aging trees result in fewer cocoa beans.10

While the flower and cocoa industries both involve unsustainable practices, there are more ethical and environmentally-friendly choices available to show your loved ones you appreciate them this Valentine’s Day. Instead of roses, perhaps give a plant that is more long-lasting, such as a potted succulent.

A succulent known as the Jelly Bean Plant. Photo by by JJ Harrison, CC BY-SA 2.5.
A succulent known as the Jelly Bean Plant. Photo by by JJ Harrison, CC BY-SA 2.5.

Or, if buying flowers remains your preference, there are some options for more sustainable flower purchases. Certification programs such as Rainforest Alliance, Veriflora, and Bloomcheck give their stamp of approval to floriculture farms after evaluating their environmental and social effects. Depending on where you live, you can also buy local flowers at the farmer’s market, instead of purchasing from online floral retailers.

If chocolate is a must, fair-trade chocolate is the better route to go. Make sure you check out the Fairtrade America website first, as it provides a comprehensive list of certified Fairtrade chocolate to choose from. Or skip the physical gifts and take your significant other to a concert or make dinner with your friends. After all, Valentine’s Day—if you choose to celebrate it—should be about spending quality time with those you love, and not about the items you buy.



1. Lily Feinn, “Why Do We Give Roses on Valentine’s Day? This Flower Has Quite A Lot to Say,” Bustle, February 8, 2017,; Ashley Paige, “Why Do We Give Roses for Valentine’s Day?”, Martha Stewart, February 6, 2017,

2. Kathleen Buckingham, “Love Hurts: environmental risks in the cut-flower industry,” Policy Forum, February 9, 2016,

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Jeff Koehler, “How Chocolate Became A Sweet (But Not Not So Innocent) Consort to Valentine’s Day,” National Public Radio, February 14, 2017,

6. Amy Henderson, “How Chocolate and Valentine’s Day Mated For Life,”, February 12, 2015,

7. Koehler, “How Chocolate Became a Sweet.”

8. Tim Cocks and Ange Aboa, “Explainer: Plans to end cocoa deforestation face multiple hurdles,” Reuters, April 19, 2018,

9. “Cocoa,” The Global Slavery Index, 2018,

10. Richard Scobey, “Is the End of Cocoa-Related Deforestation Within Reach?”, World Cocoa Foundation, December 6, 2018,; “Preparing Cocoa Farmers for Climate Change,” Rainforest Alliance, September 20, 2017,