There are, it seems, some timeless clichés for Valentines day – flowers, chocolates, weekends in Paris, even wedding proposals. And while it’s all a bit consumer and commodity orientated, it is possible - and very worthwhile - to do it all in a way that shows you care - about more than just each other.
In philosophy, there is a notion called commodity fetishism. There are many definitions, but in essence it refers to the way we value the surface attributes of a product, and in so doing mask the true realities behind it. So, as an example, we admire and focus on the cutting edge style of a new item of clothing, and this enables us to avoid thinking about the conditions for the farmers and workers involved in making the item of clothing.
While buying stuff on Valentine's Day is slap bang in the middle of a pure consumerist utopia, there are ways to de-fetishise and strip away the most glaring of destructive masks. Organic can in itself become something of a fetish, but the point of organic production is to lessen the negative burden of production on both workers and the planet. And you can do this from breakfast on.
Yes, it’s very obvious, it can be a little awkward to actually eat (there will be crumbs in the bed) but everyone loves it. You could try a suprise breakfast, with well made crepes or pancakes (look up the technique if you need to – it really helps), an espresso and whipped cream, with syrup. All ingredients can be organic for these – the cream, milk, eggs, coffee and a company called Highbank from Kilkenny now do an Irish certified organic syrup. And if you have gone to the trouble of sourcing all organic ingredients, make a song and dance about it. Your other half will most likely be impressed!
As much as we may love to receive flowers on Valentine’s Day, it can be a symbol of love made through exploitation – of people and the planet. At least 120 pesticides are used in the production of cut flowers. Producing cut flowers takes a heavy toll on the environment, and on the mostly female workforces involved in the process. These include documented health complications especially for pregnant women. Negative effects on biodiversty and on groundwater have also been found: one rose uses between 7 and 13 litres of water in production. Unlike imported vegetables, imported flowers are often flown, which has a high environmental impact. But then, North African flowers are flown from warmer places where less fossil fuel intensive outdoor production is possible – unlike the heated greenhouses of the Netherlands.
So what to do? Choose Fair Trade, organic, local organic, or hand-picked wild ones. Fair Trade standards include some limitations on the worst excesses of pesticide use, while also contributing to international development. Fair Trade not only guarantees a minimum price – vital in providing stability for workers and companies - it also adds a 10% premium. This premium money is reserved specifically for investment in projects which benefit the workers and their wider communities. Decisions about how the premium is used are made by a Joint Body of elected workers and management representatives, in consultation with the workforce. LIDL, Tesco, and Dunnes Stores sell Fair Trade cut flowers. Organic severely restricts all synthetic pesticides and other synthetic agri-industrial inputs. The Organic Delights market stalls at over a dozen farmers' markets in and around Dublin sell Dutch organic tulips for the Valentine's market. Sonairte (Laytown, Co Meath) and Penny and Udo Lange (Dublin Food Co-op) - both certified organic - sell more bespoke wild flower bouquets seasonally. Finally – there are actually wildflowers flowering right now - from common chickweed to snowdrops. Save yourself the pain of the above mental machinations while showing you give a hoot by making an actual effort. Get out there and pick her some wildflowers!
Denise Dunne of the Certified organic Herb Garden in the Naul, Co.Dublin, has another suggestion: “Instead of giving a gift of a dozen imported red roses that have no scent, are outrageously expensive, and will end up in the bin or on the compost heap, why not give a gift that lasts longer? A beautifully scented plant (lavender, lemon verbena, mint, lemon balm), or maybe a packet of romantic nigella seed (love-in-a-mist), or a very practical culinary herb in a pot (chives, thyme, oregano).”
There is almost no excuse not to choose organic or Fair Trade chocolate these days. Occasionally, companies who produce higher end chocolates have higher, though self-regulated, standards again (e.g. Valrhona), but you can't go too far wrong with organic and Fair Trade chocolates. Why not have a sensuous tasting evening on the day itself, with samples of different styles from different companies? Wine-like terminology has been in use in chocolate since the mid 1980s, so the chocolates and descriptions for them have developed to a significant level now. Individual companies like Green and Blacks do taster packs, while Valrhona do an actual tasting wheel for their chocolates. Or why not make a dripping-with-fabulous dark chocolatey dish? Truffles are a supereasy example, with how-to's widely available to watch on the YouTube university.
For her: an ethical engagement ring. This means conflict free diamonds, produced to the Canadian standard, and Fair Trade 18 karat gold. Along with antique or reconditioned (post-consumer) rings, these must surely be the organic consumers' preferred choice. Ethical engagement ring prices start at about E850 and go all the way up.
Negative effects of working with conventional cut flowers: