These former college roommates are transforming the $100B flower industry

Flowers are the ideal token of sentiment. They’re affordable, can be found anywhere, and are appropriately gifted at pretty much any occasion. And yet, like many short-lived indulgences, this delicate cargo carries a heavy burden on the environment.

Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. And so, as you may imagine, flower delivery isn’t the kindest to the planet. In total Columbia shipped out a whopping four billion flowers in 2018. A similar amount flies out from Ecuador, totaling over 15,000 tons of flowers delivered in under a month.

Valentine’s Day, the cash-cow of the industry, is particularly taxing. The ICCT estimates that the three weeks leading up to the holiday, flower delivery flights emit approximately 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. To get a sense of how this transmutes to carbon footprint, a forest larger than the area of Houston would be needed to sequester that amount of carbon, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The Bouqs’ methodology

Before you vow to ditch the daisy’s for good, you may consider an alternative way of flower shopping that doesn’t carry such a heavy eco-tax. Ladders sat down with “The Bouqs” co-founder and CEO,  John Tabis, to learn more about his unlikely immersion into the floral industry, and the loophole he’s found in conventional flower delivery methods.

Long before The Bouqs in his college years, Tabis was an aspiring singer and even created a band that he and his cohorts dubbed “Sexual Chocolate”. It was there that he met The Bouqs’ co-founder and Chief Supply Officer Juan Pablo Montúfar, the band’s guitarist at the time.

Montúfar was born in raised outside of Quito, Ecuador. His family ran a rose farm down the street where he developed an affinity for floral farming. After earning a degree in Biochemistry, Montúfar returned to Ecuador where he’d soon run his own flower farm.

“Juan reached out to me because he saw major issues in the floral industry — he wanted to think in the perspective of the farmer. This largely focussed on sustainable, responsible farming, and how much his farm invested into those things, between the labor wealth, treating the land well, but also because there were so many layers between the farmer and the customer. The customer doesn’t know whether a farm is sustainable or not. There was no way for them to even know to ask the question,” said Tabis.

While Juan loved this concept, he “didn’t know how to market it”. This is where Tabis’ expertise came in. Having previously worked in strategy consulting for Bain & Company and spearheaded marketing campaigns for prolific brand names, Tabis knew how to translate Montafur’s unique farming method to a wider audience.

Montafur’s farming methodology is actually quite simple. In conventional farming methods, the local farmer is at the end of a long chain of different players, making them the last to reap the benefits within the value chain. To remedy this, Montafur started selling his flowers directly from the farm to the florist. This concept was better for the florist as they got fresher products and they knew that the product was responsibly farmed. It was a win for the farmers because they were paid faster and were better educated from the purchaser about what a sustainable flower meant.

Fewer middlemen, more data

While streamlining the business model by cutting out the middleman may seem like a simple concept, there’s a much more sophisticated infrastructure behind the scenes that allows Tabis and Montafur to optimize the process to keep up with demand and scale of the company.

“We leverage data to enable us to scale that brand promise in a way that still maintains that freshness while being sustainable…Every year we invest more money, time, and people into approving our use of that data so that we can make sure that we keep that waste rate as low as possible,” said Tabis.

The Bouqs works with local farms from around the world — about 140 farms in total. Collectively, those farms grow approximately 2 billion stems per year. The company leverages data to gage more information about the customer demographics to garner who they’re sending flowers to, where in the world they’re sending them, and how often.

Leveraging this data has allowed The Bouqs to spot a growing trend in purchases from one demographic in particular: millennials. “Millenials are the key generation of shoppers … for some of those customers sustainability and responsibly sourced flowers are the main reason they shop with us. … Once you learn the truth about the flower chain process, you want to stick with it,” said Tabis.

He may be onto something. In a study by Cone, 76% of Millennials have said they’d research a company thoroughly before making a buying decision. This ethically impelled buying trend could herald a major shift in the way in which companies market their brand image. 

The flaws in the conventional flower market

According to Tabis, a lot of the inefficiencies of conventional flower farming methods has nothing to do with anyone not wanting to be sustainable, but in the fact that it’s not possible given the construct. The traditional, widely implemented supply chain method looks something like this:

  1.  A farmer in South America grows the product and sells it to an exporter
  2. The exporter sells it to an importer (usually based in Miami)
  3. That importer will sell it to a wholesaler
  4. The wholesaler sells it to a local florist 

There are a couple of things that happen to the product along the way that affects it negatively.

“First, it gets old. It takes two weeks for it to get to the florist, and the florist has to manage their business as well, so the flowers get old. Secondly, there’s massive waste. Between a third and half of the flowers that enter the supply chain will perish without being sold,” said Tabis. “This means huge economic and environmental waste. Lastly, there’s no transparency. You have no idea where your flowers came from when you receive them. In each step along the supply chain, they’re getting mixed together.”

Closing the flower farming education gap

Tabis posits that this lack of traceability is an underlying flaw in conventional flower farming methods. “There’s a big education gap in what consumers know about flowers. … In the last decade, we’ve all been taught to ask questions about where our food comes from. Messaging such as “organic” and “non-GMO” has popularized market understanding. That hasn’t yet been translated into the floral industry,” said Tabis.

Tabis sees education and transparency as key platforms from which he can influence consumer behavior for the better, ultimately making for a better business operation for the farmer. “Our business model actually allows us to talk about sustainability in a way that traditional supply chains don’t,” said Tabis.

This transparency isn’t achieved ‘little guy” local farmer alone — it’s becoming increasingly popular to have third party organizations that do sustainability checks on flowers, like RainForest Alliance. Whole Foods is another prime example; they work with Fair Trade organizations to streamline the delivery method and support local farmers.

Tabis emphasizes the importance of this grassroots organizational push in getting consumers to question where they get their flowers. This is one of the reasons that The Bouqs exists — “to help catalyze that conversation,” around sustainable floriculture to garner support from third-party proponents.