Shades of green

10 May 2010
UK buyers of fruit, exotic vegetables and flowers face a challenge. Our climate means that many goods demanded from consumers are not native to this country, and they don’t grow naturally in our closest neighbours. This leads to huge import requirements. And these imports are subject to the question of sustainability. Many buyers are under pressure from headquarters to source the “greenest” goods. This is a very worthwhile pursuit, but many buyers could be led astray when it comes to knowing what is green and sustainable and what is simply an illusion. Common media presentation points to goods grown closest to home as being the most sustainable. This is certainly true of native goods. Without doubt potatoes should come from English fields and early-season vegetables should be shipped from France. However, when it comes to more exotic goods, the idea of what is sustainable can be called into question – and could transpire to be a misconception. This misconception risks being fuelled by the recent volcanic eruption in Iceland. The resulting flight restrictions led to days of clear skies over Europe and many people started to wonder if air freight should be taken out of the equation altogether to achieve a greener, more sustainable supply chain. If supermarket chains and wholesalers were to cut down on the use of air-freighted goods, this would mean that instead of flying our flowers in from Kenya, they would be grown in mainland Europe and transported by road and ship. On the surface this seems to be an excellent plan and an attractive prospect to buyers who could then market their goods as “green”. However, while ships emit less CO2 than aircraft, the carbon footprint of European-grown flowers is not as low as it seems. Kenya has the perfect climate for flower growth, whereas growing flowers in the Netherlands requires heating vast greenhouses during cold European winters and consumes more energy than the air-freighted flowers from Kenya. 
A 2007 study by Cranfield University concluded that the carbon footprint of flowers flown in from Kenya was six times smaller than flowers grown in the Netherlands. Of course it is not true of every import, and many items may be better sourced closer to home, but buyers should be urged to think about the bigger picture when examining their supply chain. Importing flowers from Kenya gives a £52 million boost to the economy of a country where 40 per cent of the population live on less than $2 per day. Buyers should be wary of giving in to pressure from ill-informed sources that see the recent flight disruptions as a catalyst for sourcing goods closer to home. Instead they must think about, and research, the CO2 benefits and the human benefit of sourcing from further afield before making purchasing decisions. * David Bosomworth is chairman of think-tank OnBalance
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