State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

How to Have a More Sustainable Valentine’s Day

chocolates and gift box with sign that says happy valentines day
Our traditional tokens of affection can contribute to serious social and environmental concerns. To try to avoid some of this damage, we can choose sustainable and ethically grown products that fit our budget and values. Photo: Andres Ayrton from Pexels

It’s a beautiful winter morning and as I rush out of the house to get my morning espresso, I pass shops offering colorful heart-shaped balloons with “I love you” written in white, heart-shaped candy boxes, stuffed teddy bears. At the corner, a florist is arranging fresh long-stem roses that probably just arrived.

“What? It’s Valentine’s Day already?” I wonder.

As someone who grew up watching Hallmark movies, I romanticized giant romantic gestures mostly involving decadent chocolate boxes, red roses, balloons and greeting cards as an expression of love.

But today, as a Sustainability Management student, I find myself thinking about situations and conditions that are behind some of these commercial expressions of romance. For instance, the 1 in 4 victims of slavery who are children, often exploited to fulfill our drive for cheap products, chocolate, and other consumer goods.

I think about the environmental impact of long-stem roses produced in highly regulated greenhouses, with extensive use of chemicals, frequently shipped by air and refrigerated as they travel the planet before our local florist artistically weaves them into a beautiful bouquet.

I think about the animals that choke to death after swallowing balloons that they often confuse for food.

Unfortunately, what we’ve known as tokens of affection for people we love in reality contribute to serious sustainability concerns. To try to avoid some of this damage, we can choose sustainable and ethically grown products that fit our budget and values.

To make informed choices, it helps to understand what different eco-labels mean.

“Organic” products encourage better soil quality free of harsh chemicals and pesticides, requiring animals to be raised in natural conditions, often free from enzymes, hormones, or antibodies.

Buying a box of chocolates or roses that are “fair trade”–certified essentially means that the manufacturing company or purveyor commits to rigorous social, environmental, and economic standards.

This certification protects farmers from market price fluctuation, providing them with a sustainable income, supporting safe working conditions and supply chain transparency, and contributing additional funds that empower communities through education and skill-building initiatives.

Products claiming to be “directly traded” are different. Unlike organic or fair-trade certificates, direct trade is a description of how the product is sourced. Often suitable for small artisan chocolatiers, this certification helps manufacturers to develop closer relationships with the farmers, invest in long-term projects and ensure an ethical supply chain free of human trafficking, child labor or exploitation. Additionally, it eliminates additional fees that come with certifications and middlemen, giving the chocolate maker the freedom to pay a premium directly benefiting the farmer.

None of these labels equals 100% sustainability. Each has its flaws and benefits. Some promote sustainable agriculture, while others emphasize social wellbeing and transparency. The way to navigate our indulgence without promoting further harm is by focusing on causes that matter most to us as individuals, products that fit our budget, and ultimately identifying a brand that best suits our needs.

For instance, if I want to buy a box of chocolate but I care about child labor on cocoa farms, I’d rather buy a “fair” or “direct” trade chocolate that ensures high supply chain transparency and robust social conditions across their production cycle.

Millions of cards and branded gifts, mugs, teddies are exchanged globally on Valentine’s Day. This results in deforestation and additional waste management issues. Small changes like shopping locally, curating an experience or personalizing a card could help cut down on the impacts without costing us our future.

Ultimately, what is the true cost of our love? Is the value of our affection and culturally constructed tradition worth the social thorns that harm our planet?

Every small action we take, the products we purchase and brands we invest in, has the ability to advance climate action, force companies to take steps that ensure eradication of slavery and child labor from the supply chain, and promote fair wages to farmers.

The desire to make a difference need not cost us a beautiful memory. It need not be about canceling holidays like these. Of course it’s okay to indulge in gestures that could make our loved ones happier. However, it’s also important that we consider the indirect cost of these gestures. We can make conscious product choices and remember our love for the planet as we prepare to celebrate that for its people.

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