May 16th, 2020

What Does the Pandemic Reveal About the Global Flower Industry?

A Conversation with Marcin Rusak

Photos © Marcin Rusak

Newspapers such as The Guardian and The New York Times recently reported that the Coronavirus has put the international floriculture industry - from grower to buyer - in crisis. Since the beginning of April, the internet is full of photos and videos that show masses of unsold houseplants and cut flowers being thrown away. To fight their financial loss and encourage customers to continue buying, suppliers such as Royal FloraHolland and the Dutch Flower Group launched several web campaigns with titles like Let Hope Bloom and #BuyFlowersNotToiletPaper.

Looking at these events, we started wondering how fragile the globalised flower market is and whether alternatives exist. Eager to explore further this issue, we reached out to Polish designer Marcin Rusak whose work is literally embedded with flowers. Son and grandson of flower growers, Rusak has been questioning our relationship with the floral industry ever since his graduation project Flowering Transition (2014).

Plant Fever (P.F.) // What was your reaction when watching images of plants and flowers being thrown away?

Marcin Rusak (M.R.) // It was painful to watch them being destroyed in times when we need them the most. There is something really odd about burning flowers. They have been produced for our pleasure and emotional needs, but they are being sacrificed for the sake of sustaining businesses and the lack of other solutions. I am still trying to understand the reasons and financial decisions behind such behaviours. Also, as a studio, we are curious to see how this situation will affect the suppliers and which environmental implications it will have. One thing is sure: We should definitely think of alternatives for the floral chain.

My “dream garden” consists only of forgotten weeds and local plants. I have the feeling that, when you realise that it belongs to a determined environment, nature expresses a certain sense of purity. By applying this notion to the way we purchase flowers, we might have a chance of reducing future waste and difficulties. What we saw in the past weeks — the destruction of flowers and plants —, for instance, could happen on a much smaller scale if we relied on networks of local growers. Furthermore, it would be easier for communities to relate to growers that are linked to their context and support them.

P.F. // Do you think that, in the long run, we can keep having a consumerist relationship with plants and flowers?

M.R. // While examining this industry, we noticed a clear lack of evolution in the way flowers are being grown, transported globally and sold. Customers have very little to say about what species are distributed and where they come from. Changing the system thus requires a thorough transformation in our consumption habits. We need to start asking ourselves if purchasing a flower that usually would not exist in our geographical location — and indeed comes with an excessive production and transportation footprint — is something we want to contribute to consciously.

Our relationship with nature is unbalanced and, in the case of flowers, our purchasing habits are often dictated by a consumption-oriented calendar that pivots around marketing slogans. Imagining a scenario in which the plants we buy were grown locally and were selected among species that thrive naturally within the climate we live in could unveil the underrated potential of many forgotten species. At the same time, this would encourage garden centres to sell what is needed and not what marketers have predicted/imposed. Our consumption habits have distanced us so much from this path that we ended up with the current crisis. We need to realise that the way plants and flowers are produced and perceived has become unnatural.
P.F. // With your team, you have been exploring the notion of waste and ephemerality within the floral industry for a while now [somehow highlighting that waste is inherent to the floriculture sector independently from the Covid-19 situation]. As designers, do you see the current situation as an opportunity to rethink projects and collaborations?

M.R. // Absolutely. The problem is that the sector does not seem willing to recognise the problem. We have been trying to reach out to different organisations to collaborate with them by sourcing their waste, but unfortunately, we had no success. Some of the local flower markets, which we approached before the pandemic, claimed they do not produce any waste. As a studio, we are absolutely interested in how this industry will change from now on and are already thinking about a few projects that would provide a broader audience with alternative scenarios.

[update 13.11.2020]
Artist and designer Coltrane McDowell is investigating the potential of rose oil for the Kenyan horticulture industry. Read his article

About Marcin Rusak
Polish artist and multidisciplinary designer Marcin Rusak is interested in ideas of value, ephemerality and aesthetics. His work specialises in storytelling, process and material investigation and incorporates research, objects, installations and visual creations. / @marcinrusak


Plant Fever is a project curated by d-o-t-s and produced by the Belgian museum CID Grand-Hornu. Visual identity by Matthieu Visentin. Exhibition scenography by Benoît Deneufbourg