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Not mourning Oasis glory: the environmental impact of church flowers

by
05 August 2022

Church flowers can look good without filling the sea with microplastic, Sarah Meyrick hears

CAMOMILE & CORNFLOWERS LTD 

A small pink display at All Saints’, Shelsley Beauchamp, Worcestershire

A small pink display at All Saints’, Shelsley Beauchamp, Worcestershire

FLOWERS, it is said, lift the spirits and refresh the soul. And, with weddings and flower festivals in full flow, our churches are often especially full of them at this time of year.

What is perhaps less well known is the growing awareness of the environmental impact of church flowers. The concerns are, first, about the carbon footprint of importing unseasonable flowers; and, second, about the widespread use of floral foam (often sold under the name Oasis), which is made of toxic microplastics.

The Sustainable Church Flowers (SCF) movement, founded three years ago, is seeking to turn the tide. Its vision is simple: to reduce pollution by using locally sourced and carbon-neutral flowers, and to cut the use of plastic. It’s all about “glorifying God sustainably”, say its founders, a married couple, Shane and Candy Connolly.

Mr Connolly is a professional florist of some renown: he was responsible for the flowers at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Westminster Abbey, and is on the Royal Horticultural Society’s Advisory Board for Cut Flowers. His wife is a churchwarden in rural Worcestershire. Mr Connolly had always worked with seasonal flowers, and says that he was shocked to discover how extensively churches use imported blooms such as lilies and roses.

Things really came to a head only a few years ago, however, when Mrs Connolly was involved in applying for an eco-award. “We began the journey to becoming an Eco Church, but, when we filled in the form, we found that there was no reference to church flowers in the A Rocha requirements,” she says. “That was a bit shocking, and motivated us to thinking: ‘There’s a real gap here in either people’s knowledge or education.’”

CHERRY TREE FLOWER FARMRainy Williamson, a flower farmer, demonstrates sustainable floristry techniques

Since this was Mr Connolly’s bread and butter, he agreed to give a demonstration in their church on simple sustainable techniques, and in other churches in their area.

The response was mixed. Floral foam encourages a particular way of structuring arrangements, and many people are strong believers in this way of working.

Mr Connolly invited regular church flower-arrangers to bring along whatever they would normally use (“like Ready, Steady Cook”, he says). One person arrived with a bunch of cellophane-wrapped carnations and a plastic bowl with floral foam in it. He offered two glass vases as an alternative. “But they didn’t like that, because they’d never done that before,” he says.

Many churches have cupboards full of floral foam. This is hugely problematic from an environmental point of view. It is a relatively recent invention, created in the 1950s as a plastic by-product. It is an open-cell phenol formaldehyde foam: essentially, a petroleum-derived plastic, meaning that it comes from non-renewable sources.

Not only that: it is extremely hard to dispose of. Anyone who has used it is aware of the green dust — micro particles — released when handling it, and this is often washed down the sink. There is clear evidence of the damage that this does to marine life, and studies suggest that floral foam microplastics are even more toxic to aquatic invertebrates than other comparable leachates.

A single block of foam contains the same amount of plastic as ten carrier bags. When it becomes unusable, it is often put on the compost heap. Being plastic, of course, it does not compost. The lifespan of a block of floral foam is estimated to be between 400 and 500 years.

 

THE RHS banned the use of foam at Chelsea Flower Show from 2020 (although in practice that meant 2021, because of the pandemic). A written question calling for a ban came before the General Synod in February 2022, but its usage remains a parish decision.

Happily, there are alternatives for flower-arranging, include using scrunched-up chicken wire, making structures from twigs, or simply using taller vases. There are examples on the SCF website.

“I think, sometimes, church flower people will look at that and say: ‘Oh, it’s all very well for you, doing that in Westminster Abbey,’ and there’s resistance,” Mr Connolly says. “There’s a misconception that this is not something that is available and easy for everyone.”

Mr and Mrs Connolly admit that the message can be hard to hear, and they are keen not to sound judgemental. “It’s a bit like having less sugar in our diet. We know that it’s a problem, but it’s hard to change,” Mrs Connolly says. “I think a lot of people don’t want to say: ‘We’ve got 17 boxes of floral foam in our cupboard.’”

Mr Connolly likens it to the food movement. “I feel that the food movement is maybe ten years ahead of the flower movement,” he says. Nowadays, when you go to a pub, the fact that the food is seasonal and locally sourced is a selling point. But church flower-arrangers often come from a demographic where they are “not quite so computer-orientated; so they’re not quite up to speed with what’s happening”.

 

SEASONALITY is just as important a concern. Flowers are frequently sourced from overseas producers in the Netherlands, Columbia, Ecuador, and Kenya, where they are often grown using pesticides banned in the UK. Some may be from Fairtrade producers, but many are not.

The SCF encourages the use of Flowers From the Farm, a network of UK producers who will provide what is in season and available at the time. “You can be a bit specific and say ‘I would like them to be all shades of white,’ but you won’t be able to ask for seven stems of this and four stems of that,” he says.

Sustainable church flowers workshop at St Peter and St Paul, Wantage, in June

Mr Connolly puts some of the responsibility for unsustainable practices on the approach of formal flower-arranging societies, where “the whole emphasis is on design and rules.” These do not allow for flexibility around seasonal flowers, which can be affected by the weather.

A spokeswoman for the National Association of Flower Arrangement Societies (NAFAS) rejects this. “All members of NAFAS are aware of their responsibilities as flower arrangers to the environment, its care and fragility. As far as our association is concerned, those responsibilities will be taken care of by continuous good practice.

“All members have the skills, access to tuition, research, and examples set by peers to create foam-free designs. Innovative and contemporary designs utilise reusable and environmentally friendly material. Our access to historical flower-arranging evidence show us how to use pre-foam mechanics. Where foam is necessary, we ask members to use biodegradable and micro-plastic-free alternatives.”

A Rocha UK, too, emphasises that its Eco Church initiative is about raising awareness rather than covering every environmental aspect that a church might consider. “We are aware of the growing awareness and concerns around the environmental and health impacts of the sourcing of flowers,” the head of A Rocha UK’s Eco-Church initiative, Helen Stephens, says.

“Eco Church is a growing ecumenical movement of churches taking action and learning together about how we can act to restore and protect the earth. We aim to cover as many issues and topics as we can in our Eco Church resources, available online, and will look to include something on this in the near future.”

 

THE SCF is making some progress, however. Last year, the Bishop of Dudley, the Rt Revd Martin Gorick, gave his support to the campaign (News, 24 September 2021). The movement has a popular Instagram account, some international interest through social media, and ambassadors around the country.

One such is the Revd Benji Tyler, the Assistant Curate of St Peter and St Paul, Wantage, in Oxfordshire, who came across Mr Connolly on Instagram six or seven years ago. He says that he has been promoting the cause of sustainable church flowers for many years, without necessarily giving it that label — first, in Stepney, where he was a parish assistant, and now as he serves his title.

“I’ve been working really hard with our flower guild for a while,” he says. “The pandemic gave us a chance for a clean break and an easy segue into a 21st-century way of doing things.” It took a great deal of preparation in his church and his deanery, and strong leadership to take people with him.

“Once the figures about Oasis and the flower industry are known, people are easily persuaded,” he says. The only resistance he met was the sense that “going local” meant taking business from flower-growers in Africa. “I kind of understand that. But flower-farming in Kenya is depriving communities there of water,” he says.

A sustainable church-flowers workshop at St Peter and St Paul, Wantage, in June

“Then there are the chemicals they use. Unless the West says ‘We don’t want this,’ nothing will change.” This fits with the Church of England’s Fifth Mark of Mission, he argues: to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew life on the earth.

What did we do before we had imported flowers? We used what presents itself. You can do something spectacular with twigs, ribbon, and fabric. It’s about constantly going back to what is in the garden and hedgerow.”

He admits that this is harder in urban areas without churchyards, especially in the winter months. “But you can use potted plants grown in UK that last, instead of flower arrangements,” he says. “I’m trying to get across how important simplicity is. It’s a huge challenge.”

At the end of June, he held a workshop that he describes as “a rip-roaring success”. Forty people from the deanery attended. “Together, we learned about the SCF movement, the dangers of the modern flower economy, and the use of floral foam, before sharing beflowered cakes and giving it a go, decorating the church for our patronal feast,” he says. He hopes to repeat the workshop for Advent, with the aim of reclaiming a Victorian Christmas with no glitter or plastic.

 

ANOTHER champion is Claire Brown, a flower farmer and the author of a book on seasonal British flowers, who runs workshops in Surrey. “People don’t know how to use sustainable methods,” she says. “If they’ve been to college or night class, they’ve been shown floral foam, and that’s a single-use plastic. I’ve never had that training, and come from a garden-design background; so teaching people how to enjoy what’s in their garden came first.”

She believes that the tide is beginning to turn in favour of sustainability. “Ten years ago, I said I was going to grow and sell sustainable organic flowers, and people would love it; and a friend said to me: ‘Claire, people don’t care.’ She was right until a year ago. Now, people are starting to care. We need to speed people up, for the sake of the climate.”

At her workshops, she encourages people to bring a vase that holds water and whatever is in the garden at the time. “More people are beginning to realise there is a climate crisis, and it’s not sustainable to ship in flowers sprayed with pesticides we don’t allow in this country,” she says. She points to a study by a researcher, Rebecca Swinn, who showed that two big bouquets of imported flowers had a higher carbon footprint than a flight to Europe.

Her aim is to encourage flower-arrangers to have fun, trying new approaches. “Our wonderful local flora and foliage can look amazing. It’s about giving people the confidence . . . and changing their habits.”

 

RAINY WILLIAMSON, a flower-grower from near Bolton, is another SCF ambassador. “I’m a supporter, because I’m a small cut-flower grower and a Christian,” she says. “Unfortunately for me, I go to a Pentecostal church, where flowers aren’t really part of the tradition.”

A sustainable church-flowers workshop at St Peter and St Paul, Wantage, in June

She has always been a gardener and grown organically. “When I got my first garden, climate change was not on the radar. My reason now for sustainability isn’t climate change but wanting to do right by creation, because God made the world, and we should be looking after it.”

She does occasionally meet resistance. “But I don’t bend the rules. If someone wants something out of season, I say ‘No, that’s not me.’”

She believes that there is nothing you can’t do without floral foam. “The last time I bought floral foam was in the 1980s — it’s horrible stuff. I use lots of willow to make supports where necessary.”

Another champion is Bekah Ellis, who runs Rose and Rhubarb, an artisan florist’s near Ely. She admits a similar loathing of floral foam. “You see piles of it on churchyard compost heaps,” she says. “It’s so sad. You see very old-fashioned formal arrangements next to a sign saying: ‘This is an Eco Church.’”

Mrs Ellis has contact with two cathedrals — she frequently provides wedding flowers, and her daughter is a chorister — and she became increasingly concerned about cathedral policy on floral foam and local flowers. She recently held a workshop for six cathedrals in the east of the country. “Feedback was very encouraging,” she said. “The problem is education, because people are quite stuck in their ways.”

There is a gradual change at the grass roots, she believes. The pandemic helped in some ways, because imported flowers were not coming through. “People are becoming more aware. In the last couple of years, they started coming to me specifically to ask for local, seasonal flowers.”

Mr Connolly agrees that education is the key. “It’s not a policing thing, and it’s not a punishment thing. It’s simply trying to educate — not in a patronising way, but just trying to say, ‘Look, there really is a problem. We’re on the precipice of a cliff, environmentally, and the Church can really lead here.’”

Mrs Connolly supports this. “We’ve got to change our expectations and go with the flow and be part of creation and God’s wonder rather than absolutely crucifying what he gives us.”

 

suschurchflowers.com

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