Contributor: Isabelle Ibrahim, Oxytocin Floral
Cover Image Photographer: Erin and Tara
Welcome to our very first article on Sustainability in the Australian Floral Industry.
Let us start by saying this; highlighting the movement toward more sustainability in our Industry is not aimed to shame or disqualify anyone. It is simply an outlining of information that we know a lot of you are hungry for. If someone reads this and takes one small part away, we see that as a win. But please do not read the following as a critique to your own craft if you are not doing some or all of the below.
We realise that times are tough right now, so whatever you are doing to get through is bloody amazing! Us, ourselves at the FQ, have been far from perfect in our own careers, and we have learnt so much from this wonderful community since launching last year, which is what it’s all about!
Right, let’s get into it….
You know we are all about knowledge sharing (let’s leave the gatekeeping far from here) and we are thrilled to have the expertise of our very own FQ Directory member, Isabelle Ibrahim of Oxytocin Floral, sharing her in-depth knowledge on the subject.
Let’s dive in, this is a beefy one – as you’d expect, so grab a cuppa and settle in!
FQ: Hi Isabelle! Please introduce yourself and your business…
Oxytocin Floral is a boutique, events floristry business based in Sydney which launched in 2021 as a foam-free practicing service provider, with an eco-conscious approach and intention behind its service offering.
Having a career as a Healthcare Provider and Researcher already, I came to floristry after turning my passion for and fascination with the natural world, into a business. In particular, I’m fascinated by the language and symbolism of flowers. Since launching, Oxytocin Floral has become known for producing contemporary designs using vibrant and interesting colours and textures, and for floral sculpture techniques using foam-free mechanics.
Photographer credit: Erin and Tara
FQ: Tell us where your business name came from?
The business’ namesake is a constant reminder of the goals of this operation. Oxytocin (pronounced /ok-si-toh-suhn) is a hormone released in the brain which plays a crucial role in bonding, intimacy and human reproduction – and often is referred to as the “love hormone”.
The hormone also plays a role in what happens in your brain when returning to nature after periods of being indoors, and when we receive gifts and affection. So naturally as a science-minded person, my interest in how we communicate with flowers and what happens when we give and receive them had a huge impact on the business approach and the name.
After really honing in on my flower playing practice during the pandemic, I started sharing my work online, which lead to being asked to deliver them to households that were isolating. I know this sounds pretty corny, but I was dropping around (always socially-distanced and restriction compliant, of course!) to see COVID-captives front doorsteps and leaving them some floral “medicine” on the doorstep – a dose of literal happy hormone.
Being drawn toward a floristry style that is modern, interesting, and at times ‘weird’, I have always wanted the work I produce to create a certain feeling in whoever is viewing it. We’ve achieved that by sourcing produce that deviates from the norm in retail floristry.
In fear of sounding too airy fairy, the business name is a really important part of the story for what I’ve set out to achieve with this business. That is because, like flowers themselves, which I often poetically describe as being ‘love made visible’, I wanted to approach this endeavour with integrity and care. Not only to the clients we serve and events we style using remarkable produce, but also for the planet that created it.
Photographer credit: Erin and Tara
FQ: We love to hear the backstory, thank you for sharing. What is your understanding of sustainable floristry and what is your approach to practicing in a sustainable mindset?
Sustainable floristry, also known as eco-conscious or green floristry, refers to the practice of creating floral arrangements and designs while attempting to minimise the negative impacts on the environment and promoting ethical and responsible practices in the industry.
By adopting sustainable practices, florists can contribute to the conservation of natural resources, protect ecosystems, and promote the well-being of workers and communities involved in the floral industry. What this looks like in a practical sense, involves not only the sourcing of flowers, ideally that have been grown closer-by rather than flown or shipped long distances, but also considering the chemicals used (whether toxic to humans or wildlife) in cultivation, as well as packaging/presentation materials and waste management.
Every truly eco-conscious practicing florist that I’m aware of tends to have slightly different approaches to the next, but what we all have in common is our commitment to consider our choices in execution, in the context of risk minimisation to the environment and human (and animal) health and wellbeing. Often, green florists demonstrate commitment to ‘slow’ flowers, meaning using only locally grown flowers, and avoiding produce that comes with a heavy toll on the environment – carbon emissions.
I must state on the record, that unlike many of my peers’ businesses that pride themselves on their green-floristry approach, we cannot be considered a 100% sustainable floristry practice – and this is because whilst we have a firm commitment to avoiding the use of floral foam, we are transparent that we do work with imported stock, albeit very sparingly. Imported flower varieties we commonly use are orchids and anthuriums (which travel to Australia from growers in Asia typically) and that is because it’s exceedingly difficult to source these as cut flowers locally.
At all costs, we prioritise the use of local produce that is grown with no or minimal use of harmful pesticides and chemicals. An aspect of sustainable floristry is also the practice of growing your own produce and using compostable and organic materials to enrich your growing space. Oxytocin Floral has its own dedicated growing space, which we affectionately call our ‘OF Micro-Farm’ and we do return one of our most used design material to the soil.
Having this space means that we can have autonomy over what produce we work with, and we often plant varieties that are hard to get locally but grow easily if you have somewhat of a green thumb. A lot of planning goes into this, and you will often find us starting seeds and bulbs of flowers which will be featured at weddings in the upcoming season. By doing this, we are less likely to rely on the less available local supply of interesting and truly remarkable blooms and limit the likelihood of relying on imported produce. This, I feel, demonstrates Oxytocin’s commitment to green floristry strongly.
Photographer credit: Lonely Hunter Weddings
FQ: We saw your dahlias growing over the summer, well done! So, when do you remember becoming passionate about sustainable floristry?
I personally became aware of the sustainable floristry movement well before I ever even considered joining the florist and event community. Coming from a nursing background where a lot of my clinical experience is in respiratory disease, cancer and lung transplant, I have an in depth understanding of the risks of fine-particle inhalation and this was the first ‘red-flag’ I became aware of in relation to floral foam.
Given that floral foam is also made with chemicals, including formaldehyde and carbon black, I was also weary of it from an exposure perspective. Formaldehyde is classified as a potential human carcinogen, and exposure to high levels may cause respiratory problems and allergic reactions. Carbon black is a fine powder that can cause respiratory issues if inhaled. And truthfully, I’ve looked after too many transplant patients with a condition called ‘Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis’ to want to work with that stuff.
Many florists don’t know that it is manufacturer advice to follow safety precautions such as using gloves and a mask when handling the foam and working in a well-ventilated area. You’re also not supposed to pour the water you use to soak bricks of foam into our waterways, and that’s because it’s now been proven that microplastics and toxins from foam can interact with a range of aquatic animals. Read the RMIT University article here.
One brick of foam is equivalent in weight to 10 plastic bags, but has the potential to flood waterways with harmful microplastics far quicker than a plastic bag would. Florists are urged to ensure that they are properly disposing of the foam and contaminated water in accordance with local waste management guidelines. I’ve actually heard that the safest thing to protect our waterways from floral foam microplastics is to dump the water in your own garden bed. Having our own grow space where we celebrate the harmony of the insects and wildlife that move within it (pests and predators) and growing many edible flowers and plants – that’s a no from me!
A huge motivator to learn more about it was observing the practices of one of the leaders in the Australian and global eco-conscious floristry movement, Jardine Hansen when she was contracted to do the flowers for a personal event that I was involved in organising. Funnily enough, Jardine is an old family friend who I grew up with and watching her journey into floristry, and her unwavering commitment to considering the environmental impacts of floristry was really a guiding light when I decided to get my hands dirty with flowers. Given that Oxytocin is fairly new, I’m proud to say that this has been a constant, and I am fortunate to be self-taught, and therefore have had the ability to moderate my own education to centre the practice of producing elevated and interesting work without foam.
I’m proud to say that I’ve only ever worked with florist’s foam whilst freelancing for others who do, and Oxytocin Floral has a 100% foam-free portfolio of work.
Photographer credit: Teniola Komolafe
FQ: That is so interesting from a health perspective too, I know a lot of us don’t even consider what it’s doing to us physically. Tell us what your understanding is of the impact of floristry on the environment?
That it’s important! Something we all have in common as flower-lovers is our infatuation with nature, and it seems like a no-brainer that if your livelihood and creative outlet is dependent on working with the products of mother nature, that ‘she’ should be protected at all costs. In a time where there are newly introduced bans on single use plastics and other pollutants, I don’t think floristry – something that celebrates and creates connection to the beauty of the outdoors – should be exempt from implementing eco-friendly practices.
The impact of floristry on the environment can be significant due to various factors, including carbon footprint, water usage and waste generation, pesticide and chemical use (which has the potential to impact land, critters and us!), and also can contribute to biodiversity loss.
To mitigate these impacts, sustainable practices are being adopted in the floristry industry. These include promoting locally sourced and seasonal flowers, reducing packaging waste, using eco-friendly materials, implementing water-efficient irrigation systems in farming, and seeking alternatives to chemical pesticides.
There’s also a lot to be said about education for the clients who purchase flowers and judging by our customer base, education of the public may eventually outpace the education of florists themselves. Conscious consumer choices, such as selecting locally grown or organic flowers and supporting environmentally responsible florists, can also contribute to reducing the environmental impact of floristry. We are definitely seeing that with many of our clients feeling we are a right fit for their event, wedding or house-flower subscription because of our approach to minimising harm to the environment.
There are lots of florists around trying to create more transparency around practices and their potential impact on the environment, and the dark side of floristry is getting more airtime in the media and politics. I think this pattern of conscious purchasing is only going to gain momentum.
One of my friends, Dhani (Florada) introduced me to words by author Anna Lappe – “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.” – and I think of the saying often. I thank all of the customers that support green florists and seek to learn more about where their flowers are coming from and how they are designed in an effort to be a bit more eco-conscious.
Photographer credit: Sian Fay
FQ note: Isabelle has provided further context on the impacts in the below breakdown for anyone wanting to better understand the big and complex picture of sustainability in the floral industry.
Carbon footprint: The production and transportation of flowers, especially when imported from distant locations, can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Energy-intensive practices in greenhouses and floral shops, such as heating, cooling, and lighting, also contribute to the carbon footprint.
Water usage: Flower cultivation requires substantial amounts of water, which can strain local water resources, particularly in regions with water scarcity. Additionally, the use of pesticides and fertilizers in flower farming can lead to water pollution and harm aquatic ecosystems.
Pesticide and chemical use: The floristry industry often relies on pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides to control pests and diseases in flower production. Misuse or runoff of these chemicals can have adverse effects on human health, wildlife, and ecosystems. Flowers coming into Australia are subject to strict biosecurity intervention, and are treated with sometimes harmful, chemicals such as glyphosate and methyl-bromide which has the potential to impact human health.
Waste generation: The use of packaging materials, such as plastic wraps, ribbons, and foam, in floral arrangements contributes to waste generation. Many of these materials are not recyclable or biodegradable, further exacerbating the environmental impact. Ribbons is a tricky one and I’m ashamed to admit this is something we hadn’t considered before purchasing a large quantity of commercial-grade ribbon which is made of synthetic material. We will be moving to a more sustainable ribbon option once we have depleted the existing stock, and in the meantime, encourage all of our clients to reuse the ribbon or better-yet, return them to be recycled.
Biodiversity loss: Intensive flower farming practices, including monoculture and land conversion, can lead to the loss of natural habitats and biodiversity. This can negatively affect local flora and fauna, including pollinators vital for ecosystem health.
Image by Oxytocin Floral
FQ: With all the knowledge you have acquired what are the changes you made and were they easy to implement or has it been difficult to source sustainable alternatives?
Given that my floristry practice has been underpinned by a desire to minimise harm to the environment from inception, there hasn’t been a drastic shift in practice (like there would be for a florist/studio that previously used foam moving toward more sustainable methods), but rather an evolution in adopted methods. I’m very open with clients that I’ve not undergone formal floristry training, and that’s because at the time that I explored floristry education I was already certain that I wanted to practice in the ‘green floristry’ space, and sadly there were no courses available at the time that taught sustainable methods. I approach floristry with the same logic I would apply in clinical and scientific problem solving, which is to identify what the desired outcome is for a particular design, structure or installation and then brainstorm how we can reach that goal with foam-free mechanics and methods.
Whilst I’m not certified in floristry with a qualification, there are often many hands and minds on deck when we are preparing for events or working onsite which have been formally trained, and I quickly realised that there is a gap in training for florists that is centred around sustainability.
Our approaches see us using recycled materials and custom-built/moulded settings as base structures for arbours and installations, and use of wire, compostable floral ‘wool’ in place of foam for smaller designs and sculptures.
The most obvious alternative to floral foam medium is floral wool which is available from a few manufacturers containing basalt mineral rock fibres and other organic materials that biodegrade and turn back into ‘rock’ dust. I hear from florists who are used to working with foam that they find working with florist wool really fiddly and challenging to adapt to, but the truth is often that they are using it incorrectly. We get the best success when it is fully saturated and can be used as a soft medium to create structural shapes and designs.
We frequently share behind the scenes of our methods working with floral foam, and these are practices that I have no issues sharing if it has the potential to inspire others to reduce their foam use.
Image by Oxytocin Floral
FQ: Did you find it difficult to educate yourself further as you moved further into the Industry? Was there information readily available to you and where did you source it?
In short, the beginnings of my self-learning journey occurred during 2020 and 2021 where I used floristry as an outlet to deal with the stress of being a healthcare worker during the pandemic. Given that access to hands-on education was out of reach to me at that time, I looked online for education combining research from gardening and agriculture sources, with product knowledge related to innovative foam-free mediums and mechanics to upskill my approach to floral design.
As a visual learner, I started with videos on YouTube from Mayesh Wholesale Flowers in Los Angeles which feature LA locals, The Boy Who Cried Flowers and Shean Strong to demonstrate complex installs without the use of foam. Consuming short, highly educational demonstrations like these showed me how to achieve an impressive foam-free end result with a bit of ingenuity.
From a sustainability education perspective, I continuously come back to education from Becky Feasby of Prairie Girl Flowers (@prairiegirlflowers) and often learn new eco-facts about the industry by following her posts and stories. Sue McLeary (@passionflowersue) and Lys Lytle (@floweringminds.education) are also excellent resources for sustainable floristry.
Photographer credit: Erin and Tara
FQ: Amazing, thank you for sharing those resources with our readers. Big question, but what do you hope to see in the future as a result of your commitment to sustainability?
I look at sustainable floristry as an opportunity to celebrate anything that has an eco-protective intention, whether the changes and adaptations are big or small.
Unfortunately, I think there is a divide within the industry between those who implement more eco-conscious methods and those who don’t, but I don’t think this should be the case. Sometimes it can feel like those who are vocal about sustainability are coming across as preachy or self-important, but I think this is just misunderstood passion and determination to make a difference. We are a community, and I hope that my brand voice and tone comes across as educational rather than hostile and condescending. It’s moments like hearing that a florist whose practice depends on floral foam was able to reduce or eliminate single use plastics for an event they styled using methods they learned from you that feels like a victory. Not for my ego. Not for clout. But for the preservation and protection of our environment!
I’m the first to admit that I’m not perfect – there are probably hundreds of things that I could improve on to become more eco-friendly, and I learn new things about our collective impact on the environment every week that I was not aware of previously. I am faced with ethical conflicts and opportunities to choose integrity over impulse in decision making every single day. It can be exhausting, but when you know how to evaluate risks in your business choices, I fundamentally believe that being transparent with, and providing education to, clients is key to being effective in eco-altruism.
By sharing sustainable methods and practices that work, and by leading by example of what can be achieved with a bit of out-of-the-box thinking, I hope that anyone working in floristry who desires to be more eco-conscious will feel inspired to consider more sustainable practices.
Another important aspect where I feel that we have had impact is our education of our clients and online audience because often they are genuinely unaware of the dark side of floristry when it comes to environmental protection. We live in a world where people communicate their wants and desires by sending inspiration of flowers they see online and connect with aesthetically. It’s not uncommon for us to receive mood-board materials from future-brides showing big reflexed imported roses wrapped in iridescent and holographic cellophane. Truth is, that shiny cellophane is not sustainable, and is often disposed of at the time that the flowers are unwrapped and these flower-adjacent choices are ones that I would like to see both florists and consumers questioning the need for.
We want to participate in a special category of floristry that celebrates the flowers themselves, the story behind their origin and seasonality. I beg people to look deeper than first glance presentation and question if they need so much single-use plastic and replication of copy-paste floristry style. Clients who choose to work with us are guaranteed to get beautiful flowers that are highly curated, and selected to match the sentimentality of their event, to me – I think that’s a much more personal approach to floristry.
Photographer credit: Sian Fay
FQ: Ok, last and final question; who in the industry you look up to in terms of pioneering a sustainable future?
Absolutely! There are a bundle of people and businesses around the globe that practice with an eco-conscious approach whose work I gush over, but there are a few bright stars that I admire who continuously produce elevated designs.
I’ve already mentioned Jardine Hansen (@jardinebotanic) my first eco-conscious floristry inspiration, but I also look up to fellow Sydney florists Dhani D’Arcy of Florada (@florada_), Jane Lampe of Floreat (@floreatfloral), Anna May Henry (@annamayhenry), Bess (@bess_paddington). Heather Snodgrass-Brine of Persephone Creative (@persephone.creative) is a friend I made in 2021 and someone who had impact on consolidating my approach to sustainability in discussing ideas for mechanics.
Additionally, looking outside of Sydney, I’m a huge fan of the work of fellow nurse-turned-florist Ruth Lindfield (@ruthfionafloral) based in Auckland, NZ, as well as fellow “new” kids on the block, Ruth & Sally of Pepperberry Flora (@pepperberryflora) and floral wizard Bek Lee of Tremella (@tremellabotanicals), both based in Victoria.
And of course, I’d be remiss without mentioning Ash of Film & Foliage (@filmandfoliage) who operates in the Hunter/Newcastle region of NSW and is creating a wonderful community of scholars with what she’s been doing with Wildflower Academy (@academywildflower).
Aside from the above-mentioned florist businesses being pioneers in the specialty of green-floristry, albeit each with their own approach, the people behind these businesses are also crusaders for the cause and their execution of education and their craft is just awesome! They all get bonus points for being delightful humans and epic business-people!
FQ: Thank you so much Isabelle for taking the time to talk to us and being so generous with your knowledge and expertise. It has been an absolute pleasure and we can’t wait to see everything you continue to achieve in this space.
Thank you, Isabelle, for being so generous with your time and knowledge!
The FQ xx
Isabelle would like to acknowledge the Wangal people of the Dharug Nation as traditional custodians of the land which she works on, and pays respect to Elders, past, present and emerging.