by Emily Davila

When I was a kid, my mom would put Valentine’s Day presents on the breakfast table before we left for school. We might get a little Whitman’s candy sampler and some lip gloss, or perhaps something unrelated, like a pair of socks or a plastic lizard.

Now, as an adult, I’m still trying to figure out the right way to celebrate this day with my husband. One year, I made dinner reservations at a fancy restaurant, but it felt too forced and kind of clichéd. The next year, I made a last-minute raid on the grim selections left at the drugstore. Last year, I made a card out of magazine pictures, but my husband just thought I was being a cheapskate. So I am approaching the day again with some dread.

According to the National Retail Federation, people spent $18.2 billion on Valentine’s Day last year. Consumers plan to spend an average $85.21 on their significant other/spouse.

All this suggests that love and romance are thriving, and that people are literally investing in their relationships. And although I am ultimately just another one of the millions of consumers spending money on Valentine’s Day, I am also focused on the social justice aspects of two of this holiday’s classics: chocolate and roses.

Not-so-sweet chocolate

Seventy percent of the world’s cocoa is grown in the war-torn region of West Africa, where the industry thrives on child labor and the profits fuel violence. An estimated 284,000 children work in West Africa, 200,000 of them in Ivory Coast. Unfortunately, market forces are only increasing the demand for cocoa and thus for child labor. Sometimes children work alongside their parents and still attend school, but many do not.

While industry giants drag their feet on ensuring that their cocoa is not produced by child labor, demand for fair-trade certified chocolate is growing, and the industry is learning valuable lessons from the success of fair-trade coffee. At a fair trade-certified cocoa cooperative, child labor is prohibited and the farming methods used are better for the environment. Additionally, these co-ops are independently monitored and are expected to make contributions back to the community. Fair trade chocolate still makes up less than 1 percent of the $13 billion chocolate market, but sales and profits are growing rapidly, and the certification makes a real impact on farmer’s lives. It can mean the difference between being able to send a child to school or not.

I plan to sit back on Valentine’s Day evening and savor some fair-trade certified dark chocolate. My Valentine’s Day consumer consciousness is not over though: Flowers, another wonderful, ephemeral expression of love, come with a downside too.

A rose is a rose is . . . toxic and carbon emitting?

When a dozen long-stemmed red roses arrive at my office, for the moment I am giddy and excited. But later I can’t help but think about the fossil fuels that were burned to transport them all the way from South America. I keep that thought to myself because I don’t want to offend my husband, who thoughtfully surfed the Internet, entered his credit card number at an online flower shop, and pressed send. I’m lucky that my husband thinks to send me flowers, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if instead of going to his computer, he’d walk to a local florist with an organic greenhouse using only the fossil fuel of the rubber on his shoes.

Most people don’t realize that flowers, just like vegetables, are best bought from local, organic sources. More than 70 percent of cut flowers sold in the United States are grown in South America, where besides contributing to carbon emissions, they are grown with pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides that are restricted in the U.S. because they are highly toxic to workers. Flowers from South America are also infused with preservatives to keep them from rotting during shipment. An estimated two-thirds of Colombian and Ecuadorian flower workers suffer work-related health problems, ranging from stillbirths and miscarriages to impaired vision and neurological problems, according to the International Labor Rights Fund.

U.S. farming practices may be better, but some U.S. farms still use pesticides and fertilizers that contaminate ground water and streams, which can have a harmful effect on wildlife and human health. And the pesticides don’t stop at the farm: The toxins from those flowers may be released into the air you breathe in your home.

But there are options. Ask your florist for local or organic choices, or perhaps go for a potted plant.

Fortunately, love itself is free of global trade and market forces. There are unlimited ways to show someone that you love them; just be creative. I hope that some additional eco-consciousness is just the creative boost you need.

Have a local, organic, fair trade V-day every day!

1. Ask your date to commit to volunteering for a cause you both care about.

2. Write a love poem.

3. Stay in. Set aside an evening for you and your date to hang out and talk. Drink wine (responsibly) and enjoy your time together. If your “date” consists of getting together with your best girlfriends, do the same thing.

4. Bake a fair-trade cake. Go to the Divine Chocolate Web site for cake recipes.

6. Use fair trade to tell the story. Whether you bake cupcakes with fair-trade certified cocoa for your co-workers, book club, or date, use the opportunity to talk about how fair trade is improving the lives of families and communities around the world.

Whatever way you choose to express your love this Valentine’s Day, don’t overlook simple gestures like spending time together or giving a hand-written card. As a consumer, don’t forget to share what you know about fair trade with others while doing your part to buy fairly traded goods.

Valentine’s Day is once a year, but affirming your relationships with yourself and others can be celebrated every day.

Emily Davila worked in the Lutheran Office at the United Nations in New York City.


This article first appeared in a 2006 issue of Cafe.