After months of several lockdown stages, we all have improved our “staying at home interior situation”. Whether one bought new decoration, tried different furniture constellations to optimize Feng Shui or gathered plants as a new hobby and to create kind of an “Urban Jungle” – many people try to make their homes cozier since they spend much more time there as usual. Especially plants are creating a big hype. “Urban Jungles” are apartments and houses full of exotic plants right in the middle of the city – a place where nature is limited. Influencers on social media are proud of their collections. Plants seem to be good for your mental and physical health, but are they really as beneficial for the environment as they seem to be?
Our longing for nature
Houseplants haven’t always been a necessity in human life. At the beginning of the 20th century people first started to put houseplants into their homes, because their chances of survival have grown immensely with the improvement heated apartments and houses. But the big trend wasn’t set with oil or gas heating, but with a very small architectural detail, that moved into apartments in the 1970’s: small windowsills were added to common windows, that offered a space which had to be filled. The perfect spot for a houseplant was created.
Being surrounded of walls, streets and other people all the time, many people that do not live on the countryside long for a little bit of nature in their lives. Are houseplants a result that came up many years after urbanization and industrialization? A result that doesn’t seem important in our daily lives but that reveals a major psychological longing after something we destroyed before and keep destroying?
Today, especially the aesthetic of plants is playing a big role. On Instagram, where photos that seem to be snapshots, but really are staged, posed and decorated images, are posted, hashtags like #plantmom or #urbanjungle mark photos of the same aesthetic. If you like it, you can follow. Or you can create one yourself.
Not only are plants nice to look at. Many plant owners are convinced that their plants make them truly happy. Unfortunately, there aren’t any representative studies that confirm the thesis that plants can help people with depression or something comparable, because very few of those studies get financial support. A preliminary study on the mental well-being of office workers has shown that plants support collegiality, help to relax and can therefore lower stress. Some plants can also help to optimize the quality of the air which helps to lift one’s mood.
What is the difference between houseplants and “common” plants? Houseplants aren’t independent anymore. They need human help to survive, which makes their existence less “natural”. Plants can help to improve your sense of responsibility since you need to look after them and treat them right. Therefore, it is absolutely possible to develop an emotional connection to plants. Like objects that remind you of something or someone important in your life, the same feeling can occur for plants – even stronger, because plants are a living organism that share the same environment with you.
The impact on the global environment
Speaking of the environment, we should change the perspective and look out of the window for a moment. Taking the topic to the next level, plants indeed make one’s apartment greener and friendlier, but aren’t very “green” when it comes to production and transport on a global basis.
The majority of houseplants in the EU comes from the Netherlands. At the “Westland” near Den Haag plants, vegetables and flowers are growing in glasshouses. Some businesses produce and sell up to 14 million plants a year. Those are stylish plants that are available for everyone. The Netherlands are one of the “Big Players” on the international plant market. But how can exotic plants with freaky names like “Monstera deliciosa” or “Alocasia macrorrhizos” grow in the Netherlands, where tropical temperatures and humidity are not comparable to the ones in rain forests? Not everything can be regulated in glasshouses, so the offshoot, the baby plants, are planted in Africa, Asia or South America and being shipped to the Netherlands where they can continue to grow. In Africa, Asia and South America there are “plant hunters” that are always looking for new, exotic plants they can sell to the international plant market.
Plants have developed to be a real “designer piece”. Producers spend years in the cultivation of random deviations that seemed to be “beautiful mistakes of nature”.
A big problem in this process is transparency. Pesticides, chemical toxins that protect the plants from undesirable parasites, are used in countries as Africa, but are forbidden in Europe. Those pesticides are not very dangerous for the consumers but are very harmful to the health of employees. Not only their health is neglected, workers in East-Africa, that mainly produce cut flowers, mostly do not have a save work contract or social validation, which can be called exploitation in every aspect.
Plant production also shares an important factor with meat and dairy production: space = money. Now transfer factory farming on plant growing - as many plants as possible should be stored in a small space. Inhibitors are used to keep the plants small and compact through interrupting their natural growing process. This procedure is also called “stress-treatment”.
The “EU-Plantpass” which was introduced in 2019 should help the consumer to track the origin and sustainability of the plant. Still, the validation is poorly transparent since only the last origin has to be stated and not its whole journey. Hence, the “true” origin of your plant doesn’t have to be the Netherlands, it could also just be the place where the plant arrived when it came to Europe.
The ecological standards we have in Europe are not enough yet, producers need to look after possible alternatives for the use of pesticides. But not only the plant itself might be a threat for the environment, also its ground can be a problem if it contains peat which mostly comes from moors. Moors are precious eco systems and the dismantling of peat produces a lot of CO2 which has a negative impact on the environment.
What do we want?
I love nice plants. They make me happy. Houseplants and natural plants. To find a balance as a consumer is hard, but not impossible. The first step is awareness. The next step is looking out for seals that proof a fair and environmentally friendly production. In Germany seals like demeter, Naturland or Bioland are quite reliable. In the Netherlands it would be the NPS seal. If we want to keep houseplants and our natural environment outside our apartment, we need to request fair production as consumers. There will never be progress without request. Environmental awareness is increasing, matching the color of hope. But it is not enough yet.