Wrapping flowers in Federico Hewson's Fair Trade flower paper (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

A staff member wraps flowers in Federico Hewson’s paper at Westside Market. (photo by Erica Houle)

Eager to take the edge off our dizzying cost of living, New Yorkers tend to seek out small, seemingly affordable luxuries. There’s a $10 manicure here, a $5 bouquet of roses there. The flowers in particular are a quick solution for a forgotten birthday, or a much-needed sign of life in our tiny apartments. But much like those manicures we learned about from the New York Times last summer, our cheap flowers come with a high human cost. Artist and activist Federico Hewson has spent a decade advocating for better conditions on flower farms, and now he’s created a gentle tool to raise awareness of the often harsh labor conditions and environmental impacts behind the inexpensive blooms we so enjoy: the paper they’re wrapped in.

“Flowers are so visible in New York City,” Hewson told Hyperallergic. What’s less visible is the work that got them there — the struggles of women who toil for long hours for very little pay, while being exposed to harsh chemicals that can cause, according to an ABC News report, “nausea, skin eruptions, headache, dizziness and fainting.” Even when the women don’t experience those symptoms, “a lot of these pesticides are cancer-causing agents that can cross the placenta and affect the health of their children,” Dr. Marion Moses told ABC.

Since the flowers we buy in New York will be wrapped in paper no matter, Hewson thought: why not create an eye-catching design that would educate consumers “in a delicate way”? At first glance, Hewson’s paper looks like any other white butcher paper,  but it’s printed with pink blooms whose petals form the shape of hands. Scattered around them is a text that reads in part:

Many hands touch a flower before it comes to you. Whose hands are these? 75% of the flowers imported into the US are from Colombia. 65% of the workers are women; many are mothers who work long hours under harsh conditions.

From New York to Colombia. From hand to heart.

After the final line comes a link to Hewson’s site, flowersofthefuture.net, where consumers can learn about flower farms and the Fair Trade Certification process, which tells consumers which products — from sports balls to chocolate and coffee — were produced in an ethical manner, in conditions beneficial to both workers and the environment.

Federico Hewson's Fair Trade flower paper

Federico Hewson’s Fair Trade flower paper (photo by Erika Houle) (click to enlarge)

Hewson’s flower journey began in 2006, when he launched the Valentine Peace Project in Los Angeles. The project worked with students in schools around the city who wrote poems about their support for world peace. Papers containing the poems were then wrapped around flowers and distributed in public spaces throughout Los Angeles. A distributor had provided huge discounts on the flowers bought in bulk, but like many of us, Hewson still didn’t understand why they were so cheap. He learned when he moved the project to Europe.

At the time, Hewson said, “Fair Trade was starting to certify flowers, the same way they certify coffee and chocolate, but that was for flowers in Europe,” which come from farms in Kenya and Zambia. “Then I learned why, in the States, Fair Trade is behind on flowers — because 80% of our flowers come from Colombia, and Colombia doesn’t have a Fair Trade–certified farm. So that means the women are making less than eight dollars a day, and they don’t have a union.”

When he came to New York for graduate school, to attend NYU’s program in Art, Education, and Community Practice, Hewson knew it was his chance to promote the cause in the United States. As the time came to create a final project, he considered how to build upon his previous work advocating for Fair Trade flowers. A flyer wouldn’t do it, but after seeing so many bouquets at delis around the city, Hewson hit upon the paper they’re wrapped in. Stores have to use it anyway; why not make it attractive and effective? Once he decided to focus on paper, Hewson worked with designer Josh Cohen to create the final pattern and layout. To manufacture the initial test run for Mother’s Day, a few stores gave Hewson their original paper rolls to take to a printer, which added Cohen’s design; Hewson then brought the newly designed paper back to the shops.

He worried that store owners would be hesitant to wrap non–Fair Trade flowers with Fair Trade–promoting paper, but the response has been positive in the few places tested thus far. “They thought it was beautiful, so that helped,” he noted. “I worked so hard to make the message poetic, so that it’s a strong message about helping Colombia, but not off-putting to someone selling flowers.”

Mark (who did not give his last name), a manager at the Westside Market on Third Avenue near Union Square, explained in a brief interview at the store that he likes supporting young activists and entrepreneurs, and was impressed by both Hewson’s design and cause. Rather than being put off by the message, Mark said that “[Hewson] explained the project and what he was trying to do for flowers, and I was impressed.”

A customer buys flowers wrapped in Hewson's Fair Trade paper

A customer at Epicurean Market on University Place buys flowers wrapped in Hewson’s paper. (photo by Federico Hewson)

Hewson is currently exploring options for printing the paper on a broader scale, beyond the few original participating stores. Last month, he wrote about his work for the Fairtrade America blog and won a grant from the Pollination Project, a foundation that gives $1,000 awards to innovative social change projects. Hewson said he’s already received requests for orders in New Jersey, is working with a publisher to create a book about the flower trade, and is in talks with Fair Trade USA about potential collaboration and/or distribution, though that’s still very much in the planning stages.

Given how concerned we’ve become about the provenance of our chickens, even to the point of Portlandia parody, perhaps with Hewson’s help we can apply some of that energy and concern to flowers.

Correction: This article originally misstated the name of the Fair Trade blog on which Hewson’s post appeared. We regret the error, and it has been fixed.

Ilana Novick writes about art, culture, politics, and the intersection of the three. Her work has appeared in Brooklyn Based, Brokelyn, Policy Shop, The American Prospect, and Alternet.