13 February 2018

Buy small and buy British, concludes Becky Swinn in her prizewinning project comparing the lifecycle impact of British, Kenyan and Dutch cut flowers

A passion for sustainable supply chains and the desire to do something useful, brought Becky Swinn to Lancaster University.

Now her research project comparing the carbon footprint of British, Dutch and Kenyan cut flowers has won the prize for the Best Collaborative Project at the Lancaster Environment Centre. But, like many others, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do when she finished her first degree. After spending two years doing a series of jobs she got asked to work on a project encouraging people to reduce the amount of food they throw away.

“I loved that, and knew I wanted to do a masters in the environmental field, learning how to help business to improve their sustainable credentials and more specifically their supply chains.”

She started an MSc in Environment and Development at Lancaster University’s Graduate School for the Environment, and when it came to choosing a dissertation topic, she knew she wanted to work with a business.

She was put in touch with Mike Berners Lee from Small World Consulting, one of the environmental companies based at the Lancaster Environment Centre, and he offered her a project doing a life cycle assessment of cut flowers “because their carbon intensity – that is, their associated greenhouse gas emissions per pound at retail - are greater than most supermarket products”.

“I originally designed my research to help a large retailer with their sourcing decisions, but as I went on, I realised my research would likely help the case of local, smaller flower growers. They are really interested in promoting British blooms but there hadn’t been any studies comparing British grown flowers those grown abroad. This provides an environmental case for buying locally.”

“I knew nothing about flowers; I had never even grown them,” said Becky, “but I am really interested in making supply chains more environmentally sustainable and ethical so I said yes.”

Becky quantified and compared the carbon emissions relating to cultivation and transportation of cut flowers grown in the three countries and looked at other key issues such as fertiliser and water use and labour conditions. Her research concluded that the emissions from Dutch and Kenyan flowers were pretty much equal, with the Dutch flowers using much more artificial heating and lighting, while the Kenyan emissions came mainly from transportation.

British flowers had far fewer emissions. This included larger commercial farms, but particularly flowers grown in small farms and transported locally, usually in cars. She concluded that an imported mixed bouquet produces ten times greater carbon emissions than a seasonally grown, British mixed bouquet.

Her work contradicted a 2007 study which claimed that Kenyan flowers had far fewer emissions than those in the Netherlands.  “The Kenyan industry has been using that report to justify their trade but my conclusions are very at odds with that.”

But finding the data for her project was a long and difficult process.  “I had to ‘phone lots of farmers and ask about very specific details such as whether they grew their flowers under in plastic or glass,  the dimensions of cooling rooms , and how much of their soil was reused”. .”

Becky found growers in the UK and the Netherlands were really willing to talk openly, but Kenya was a different story. She spent months ringing farmers, trade bodies, transport and logistics companies and environmental departments.

“I didn’t get one piece of information after months of trying. There have been questions raised about the environmental issues around cultivation in Kenya, but the industry matters so much for their economy that I imagine they fear anyone that might threaten  it,” says Becky.

But Becky didn’t give up, she kept looking for other ways to get information.

“I found some recent reports online that broke down the energy use of 20 or so farms, and I rang up some of the people that bred the seeds grown in Kenyan farms - sellers and seed propagators in Israel - and they told me how they were grown in Kenya.”

And there were other major challenges in finding the relevant data. “For some kinds of fertiliser, such as blood and bone, I couldn’t find any study working out the carbon footprint, so I had to do a mini life cycle analysis.”

Again she tracked down experts and rang them up, to make sure she was doing her research right. Despite the difficulties, Becky loved the challenge which has increased her enthusiasm to work in the environmental field. 

Becky has now got a short term position working for Welsh Water as a National Environment Programme (NEP) Coordinator.

“I love it as they're the only non-profit water services company in the UK, and I'm learning everything about water catchments and water quality on the job!”