The Floriculture Sustainability Initiative (FSI) has promised that 90% of flowers and plants will be responsibly grown and traded by 2020. But are we on track? FCI sat down with FSI’s Chief Executive Jeroen Oudheusden who is optimistic about the floral industry’s ability to rise to the FSI sustainability change, especially for the more seasoned retail suppliers. True sustainability starts with a different mindset, he says, encompassing a good dose of sensitivity, values and morality.
A minor sustainability proof is sometimes in the details. Jeroen and I met in the Hague, Netherlands in the SER headquarters where he frequently co-shares one of their flexible working rooms.
Fortunately, we can confirm that he pulled up in an electric car and to comfort the more cynical individuals among us, FSI hired Oudheusden as a part-time employee. This circumvents building a bulky central sustainability team that itself could be a reason for floral industry colleagues to resist developing their own sustainability programmes.
SER stands for Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands (SER), an advisory body for the Dutch government in which employers, employees and independent experts work together to reach agreement on key social and economic issues. International Responsible Business Conduct is at the heart of their business which explains Oudheusden being one of their regular visitors.
Political ambiance is something FSI’s face to the outside world is very familiar with. IDH, the Sustainable Trade Initiative and initiator/startup fund for FSI back in 2013, was established 10 years ago by the Dutch government, a private-public partnership to push the sustainability envelope in complex supply chains such as cocoa, coffee and vanilla. “Today, it is funded by the Swiss, Danish, Norwegian and, naturally, Dutch government. They take action to tackle key environmental and social topics such as IPM, deforestation, water stewardship, chain transparency, gender and living wages. Typical of their non-NGO approach, companies are put in the lead and their sustainability benchmarking framework is based on the Basket of Standards. International standards are benchmarked against international reference points and legislation on social and environmental criteria. Once recognised by the supply chain as responsible sources, they are added to this basket. The same basket system we use in flowers applies to spices and vegetables. So we learn from each other. IDH is also co-funding projects. Last year, the floral business teamed up with the stakeholders from the tea industry in Kenya to prove why gender equality is a good business practice and we are drawing on the lessons from such projects.”
Hacking through the jungle
The international arena of Germany’s IPM ESSEN show in 2013 marked the launch of FSI to encourage greater adoption of sustainability practices, improve auditing and compliance, and simplify the assessment process for organisations and suppliers in the ornamentals sector. “FSI’s first exercise was to hack its way through the jungle of no less than 14 ecolabels, the majority of them with an unclear content and, as such, difficult to compare. With the help of the International Trade Centre in Geneva, which provided a sustainability roadmap, benchmarking soon brought clarity to the marketplace. All of our standards in our basket have now successfully passed the test in terms of transparency and basic requirements.
Evolution has been a part of FSI since its inception. Gaining nine new members in the last year alone, more companies are joining and reporting their volumes of sustainably produced and traded flowers. Oudheusden says that with over 50 active members, a consolidated FSI network is committed to doubling its efforts to reach the FSI objective of 90% responsibly sourced flowers and ornamentals.
Will the Initiative miss its initial 2020 target? “When we first started, the most important questions to answer were: What can FSI tangibly do for me and how can we make sustainability more visible. Data quality has improved in addition to increased transparency of certified growers. Some companies are already close to the 90% target, especially those who started many years ago by implementing sustainability strategies. These include almost all potted plant growers who are strongly rooted in the retail business where strict requirements on ecologically sound products have been in place for a long time. However, percentages differ, some are at 90%, others 80% some 60%. Some growers produce a multitude of seasonal crops difficult to certify. For some it’s a struggle because they run relatively small businesses.”
Currently there are 14 sustainable standards and schemes in the FSI basket with FlorEcuador next in line. According to Oudheusden, the basket is now offering a complete package. “The basket allows you to choose from different certificates, all meeting the same basic requirements. The next step is to avoid duplication of standards. FSI’s aim is to provide a one-stop shop for retailers. Buying flowers and plants under Basket label A should be no different from doing the same under Basket label B.
Sustainability is a complex concept, difficult to predict, difficult to quantify. Among the many issues at stake are energy, water, air quality, workers’ health and social equity, not to mention the incredible number of different ornamentals and production locations around the world.
The most frequently used definition is from the UN World Commission on Environment and Development: ‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’
When asked for his own personal definition Oudheusden points to the famous triple bottom line People Planet Profit in which he is a firm believer. “All aspects of sustainability – environmental, social and economic- should to be viewed together as a whole. The financial aspect is sometimes left out but sustainability is nothing if it doesn’t work for business, too.”
Questioned about whether FSI undermines or improves financial results, he says, “There are definitely examples of how spending on sustainability efforts including the use of renewable energy sources can yield cost savings. Using the appropriate sustainability marketing may even allow you to sell your flowers at a higher price. Profit can translate into economic growth in the world’s flower growing regions, to better livelihoods.”
Oudheusden invites us to look at the deeper shades of green. “Sustainability is no longer an option but an imperative. We as an industry provide the ultimate feel-good product. It would be totally crazy if we would compromise our environment to grow these beautiful flowers and plants. It’s our duty and responsibility to ensure that we live up to customer expectations. Businesses have to lead and educate, not wait for consumer demand.”
He adds that sustainability is about positioning your company for long-term success and that requires courage as being green automatically comes with risk taking. Sustainability also brings a multitude of stakeholders together in coalitions that normally would never have existed. “Among participants in our meetings are competing wholesale companies and truly the entire value chain from propagator, breeder, grower, wholesaler, garden retailer to auctioneer and retailer. Indeed, FSI acts as binding glue.”
FSI is a market-drive
Over the past couple of years, I have interviewed quite a few florists, wholesalers, tenants at wholesale flower markets and their typical response was that they didn’t source sustainable flowers because customers didn’t ask for it. With this in mind my pertinent question is whether FSI is also demand-driven. “There’s no doubt there’s a lack of sustainably grown products. The problem is that sustainably grown flowers and plants are not always easy to identify in the marketplace due to a lack of data. Here the wholesaler’s online shop can play a pivotal role by linking sustainability data to the available assortment.”
When the discussion veers back to the demand question, Oudheusden peers out the window as if he wants to point to the Hague’s city centre where only one day before our interview thousands of secondary school students gathered to take part in a demonstration calling for action on climate change. “The whole thing was organised through a few whatsapp messages. The consumer demand for more sustainable products is evident especially in the food chain. Sustainability provides the perfect opportunity to make clear what the floral industry really stands for when it comes to environmental and social issues. Think Green City, think about the many benefits greenery has on the urban environment and indoor living spaces. But we should make sure that our story is correct and complete The consumer has the right to expect that our flowers are produced in a responsible way.”
With the floral industry being a highly global business, why not launch one big universal fair flowers fair plants label. “If you had 14 labels, we would just be number 15. With that I am saying that our aim is to be a neutral observer, push the standards and be increasingly transparent in the bench market. Different standards have decided to specialise and to raise their own level of criteria. We have no preference for any specific label and believe they all do things in a different way. FlorEcuador members may face completely different challenges than their fellow growers in Denmark. As such, it is good to have a set of specific certifications or code of practices that help growers meet the requirements but only if you can benchmarket it against good practice that you have established as a sector.”
Connecting with retail
Meanwhile, it is a particular challenge to have more retailers on board, confesses Oudheusden. “Some big retailers such as Ikea, Rewe and AH are already in but it is no secret that we would like to be better connected with the retail sector. For them floral is only a small part of their portfolio and they find it difficult to link up to our, in their eyes, small initiative. They’re definitely interested and would like to support us but becoming a member is a decision which is not to be taken lightly. And let’s be frank: committing yourself to 90% sustainable sourcing is something you would have to think twice about, willing to spend money and energy.”
With over half of its members being of Dutch origin, FSI may give the wrong impression about its international character. Some critical voices abroad have even bfanded FSI the newest lobby organisation to promote Dutch trade. “On the positive side one can say that we were lucky enough that these companies were brave enough to take this initiative, to become members and active participants. It’s a fact of life that there are a lot of Dutch involved in the floral industry. However, when looking into our membership base, we have companies from around the world. Also our board consists of people with many different nationalities, representing the major flower-producing countries. Our trade is global as is FSI.”
Social license to operate
Regarding the willingness at the grower’s level, Oudheusden says that FSI offers a tool to improve your own practice over time. The value of a certificate is that it allows you to compare yourself to your peers in the industry. The core is being a professional wanting to improve and being transparent and accountable for what you are doing. Certification is like a stamp of approval, sometimes considered being a burden as it costs money (costly annual audits), time, energy and paperwork. “However, it is also a social licence to operate for a retail business audience. Not certification for certain market segments or retailers means that you are out. A sustainable edict rather than a sustainable initiative? “Bad is a situation where you are forced to have multiple certifications though they are all basically the same thing. That’s something we really should get rid of as a business sector. Nobody wants additional audit costs, especially the growers,” concludes Oudheusden.
For more information: www.fsi2020.com and follow FSI on Linked-In.