By LAURA E. LEE
WASHINGTON (February 11, 2011) Valentine's Day, with estimated sales of $15.7 billion, is a huge boon for retailers in an otherwise bleak economy, but if you're a socially conscious consumer, finding one of the top-selling items—chocolate, jewelry or flowers—that fits your ideology may pose significant challenges.
From environmental concerns to labor rights to civil wars, American consumers may be hard-pressed to find ideologically pure valentines.
Take flowers, for example. Last year, the United States Customs and Border Protection processed 320.8 million cut flower stems from Jan. 1 to Feb. 14, with 66 percent of them trucked in from Colombia and 33 percent from Ecuador.
The lengthy transport on refrigerated planes and trucks burns fossil fuels, says Ellen Frost, owner of a floral design company in Baltimore that deals exclusively in locally grown flowers. Because of "cheap labor and lax environmental law," growers in Latin America can produce flowers at a much lower cost, she says.
Availability is also an issue for consumers, Frost says. When you can buy a dozen roses at a gas station or from a stand on the side of the road, you may be less likely to go to your local farmer's market to purchase blooms.
Consumers can look for the Veriflora certification label, which guarantees farms are audited for sustainability measures and labor practices.
"We've worked with the flower industries and the growers to determine how we can get the freshest flowers... that will last for the consumer," said Michael Keyes, certification manager for Scientific Certification Systems, the company that administers the VeriFlora program.
Pesticides in floral production also raise health and safety concerns for the workers, said Tim Newman, campaign director for the International Labor Rights Forum.
Organic flowers may mean that pesticides were not used, Newman said, "But it is important to remember that organic certification does not really include labor rights standards, so it doesn't necessarily mean workers are protected."
A survey by the International Labor Rights Forum in 2000 estimated that one-fifth of the 60,000 floral workers in Ecuador were children. Nearly two-thirds of Colombian flower workers and half of Ecuadorian flower workers are women, the organization reports.
While consumers cannot control the supply chain, they can make informed decisions about the purchase.
"Certainly talk to their florist about their flowers and share your concerns with your florist and let them know exactly what you're looking for," said Jenny Scala, marketing director for the Society of American Florists.
Chocolate may seem like a sweet alternative but it may be bittersweet for the socially conscious consumer.
West Africa produces 70 percent of the world's cocoa, according to a report by the World Cocoa Foundation, where reports of forced labor and child labor continue to emerge.
Some companies are working with independent third-party monitoring organizations to trace their supply chain and make sure that the farms where their cocoa is grown comply with international labor standards, Newman said.
Hershey's, which produces over 40 percent of chocolate consumed in the United States, does not use third-party verification, according to a report issued by the labor rights forum.
However, Kirk Saville, a Hershey's spokesman, said the company focuses its efforts on educational programs in farming communities and partners with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to train farmers in West Africa in production techniques, market access and crop diversification.
At the upper end of the chocolate market, members of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association value knowing not only where their beans are grown, but also how they are harvested, said Mary Jo Stojak, association executive director.
Because of their focus on quality, she said, fine chocolate creators have a vested interest in the livelihoods of the farmers who grow their beans.
As with flowers, chocolate labeling also has shortcomings.
"Just because something has a fair trade or an organic label on it," Stojak says, "how do you know that's true unless you talk to the farmer?"
Jewelry is another popular Valentine's Day option, but for some, this choice loses its luster when they consider the mining practices of diamonds, stones and metals.
The 2006 movie "Blood Diamond" called attention to the issue of "conflict-free" diamonds, or diamonds that were not mined by rebel groups in war-torn countries. Congress passed the Clean Diamond Trade Act, banning the importation of any diamond not certified by the Kimberley process that ensures their production does not finance insurgent groups.
Steve Samaras, owner of Zachary's Jewelers in Annapolis, said some shoppers were concerned about conflict-free diamonds, but ethics sometimes took a backseat to price.
"When the 'Blood Diamond' movie came out, we had seminars that we were attending to sort of combat the fallout that we thought this movie may present to us," he said. "And I tell you, it was our best Christmas ever."
Brian Leber, owner of Leber Jeweler in Chicago, said he was the first American jeweler to offer conflict-free Canadian diamonds as an alternative. He found consumer response to the complex political and social issues varied.
"Some people glazed over ... but other people became interested and it allowed a dialogue to begin," he said.
Other gemstones are now a problem, warned Leber. "Ruby is the poster child for what can be deplorable about colored stones."
In colored stone mining, "child labor is endemic," he said. "If you do not know your source, if you do not know where the stone was cut, the chances that child labor was involved are great."
The conflicts are not limited to Africa. In recent years, there were reports that Taliban forces took over emerald mining operations in Pakistan, and Leber led a successful movement to ban the importation of Burmese rubies into the U.S. because the stone's sales were funding the country's military junta.
Consumers already ask questions about characteristics of their jewelry, like whether gold is actually 14-karat or a diamond is actually 2-carats, said Matt Runci, chairman of the Responsible Jewellery Council. That means that shoppers ought to be informed and empowered to ask questions about the mining and manufacturing processes as well.
Asking questions is important, Leder said, but buyers also need to find retailers they trust. He urges shoppers to find a trusted retailer who is aware of the supply chain issues.
"When someone comes to us," he said, "I don't expect them to go get a master's in foreign policy before they buy an engagement ring."