A darker side to Valentine’s Day

Chocolate, jewelry and flowers may be popular Valentine’s Day gifts, but they come at significant social and environmental costs.

Americans are tipped to spend $19.7 billion on Valentine’s Day this February 14, much of it on flowers, chocolate, or jewelry. We talked to two researchers to find out the darker side to the most popular Valentine’s Day gifts and get their recommendations for sustainable alternatives.


Dr. Martin Donohoe, an expert in public health and social justice issues from Portland State University, has studied the negative impacts the cut flower industry has on the environment.

With over 65% of flowers sold in the US imported from overseas, the majority from Colombia, Donohoe notes that pesticide laws in these countries can be fairly lenient – in fact, one-fifth of the pesticides used overseas are banned in the US. This, combined with the fact that flowers are one of the most pesticide-intensive crops in the world, means they can pose significant health risks to consumers and workers in the floriculture industry.

According to Donohoe, over 50 percent of floriculture workers report at least one symptom of pesticide exposure, including blurred vision, asthma, nausea, incontinence, dermatitis, wheezing, or chronic bronchitis, while in rare cases exposure was found to lead to bradycardia, pulmonary edema, paralysis, convulsions, and even death. Additionally, pregnant women working in the floriculture industry have a higher risk of giving birth to children that suffer from birth defects.


Although there is now more awareness of “blood diamonds” – gems that are mined in warzones in Africa and sold to fund armies or warlords – the demand for the gems remains high. With 65% of diamonds mined in Africa, the industry has faced criticism for abetting major human rights abuses and environmental degradation. Diamonds have even been used by terrorist group al Qaeda to fund their criminal activity.

In the course of his research, Donohoe has focused on the impacts of popular romantic gifts on human rights and the environment. He believes the situation in diamond mining is so bad that consumers should stop buying the gems full stop: “Even though many are not technically blood diamonds, it is impossible to know for sure. Additionally, buying and wearing a diamond perpetuates the marketing construct that engagements require a diamond, which keeps the overall diamond market alive,” he said.

Mining and producing gold jewelry can also have significant environmental costs. For example, to source the gold needed to create one 18 karat ring results in at least 18 tons of metric waste being left behind. This waste often contains toxic residues such as mercury or cyanide that can lead to the local environment being poisoned, as was recently the case when wastewater laced with heavy metals was accidentally released from an abandoned gold mine in Colorado.


As sweet as it may taste, chocolate also has a bitter side. Cocoa farming has led to deforestation and the destruction of habitats. More than three quarters of protected areas in the Ivory Coast, for example, have been turned into illegal cocoa bean farms.

According to Professor William McGraw, an anthropologist at The Ohio State University, if the situation doesn’t improve soon it could lead to a wave of extinction in the area, with primates especially at risk. The chocolate industry has also been linked to child slave labor, with major corporations including Nestle currently facing court in the US for buying beans from farms that they knew used child laborers.

Although he considers Fairtrade chocolate to be a better choice, McGraw says it’s easy to lose track of where the beans have come from so consumers can’t be 100 percent sure that the cocoa has actually been sourced from sustainable farms.

What are the alternatives?

According to our researchers, there are sustainable alternatives to the most popular Valentine’s gifts. Flowers that are Fairtrade and organic, charity donations, or homemade gifts and dinners, for example. As for jewelry, Donohoe recommends purchasing pieces that have been made using recycled gold, man-made diamonds, or cubic zirconia.

Image courtesy of freeparking.