When a rose is more than just a rose

GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES - Bouquets of red roses are seen on February 11, 2011.

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Labor rights are a growing concern as the “Occupy Wall Street” movement gains steam both in the United States and abroad. But even as workers demand better conditions on the job, consumers are demanding ever-lower prices. Is it possible to satisfy both the worker and the consumer — or does something have to give? Roberto Nevado founded Nevado Roses in Ecuador in 1996 with a focus on improving the rights of workers in one of the world’s most prolific rose-producing regions. The company also places an emphasis on sustainable production, using an organic process to grow roses and carnations. Nevado co-owns the business with his son John.

This is the latest installment in the “Five Questions” series where we ask industry, thought and academic leaders five questions about what’s next.

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1) Sustainable agriculture is frequently associated with higher product costs. How have you managed to stay competitive, while still improving working conditions and reducing environmental impact?

We acknowledge that sustainable cultivation of roses is more expensive than that for normal roses. In light of this, we sell our organic roses in niche markets that can pay a slightly higher price. We are also continually innovating around new usage areas for USDA organic roses. For example, we are currently looking to target supermarkets with pre-packaged, organic rose petals for salads and desserts. So far, we have managed to get into a few of the world’s top gourmet restaurants, among them Per Se in New York. Today, we are still investigating niches that will help us meet our costs, and we anticipate it will take two more years before we reach our goal.

2) What was the most significant obstacle you encountered in your work to create Nevado Roses?

Our main obstacle is financing from foreign banks. Many of these banks do not give significant amounts of credit to Ecuadorian rose projects. In addition, local banks in Ecuador have gone through severe problems in the last decade and are finding other projects more appealing than roses, which has been a leading industry in the region for some time. However, some of their reticence to fund rose enterprises is waning, making them somewhat more accessible. We are also targeting foreign investors who have an appetite for high-return projects in South America.

The other obstacles we face are rooted in the surrounding infrastructure, topography and climate. For example, droughts significantly impact production, and the municipal authorities are not in a position to provide immediate remedies. The lack of water alone could kill fledgling and established companies alike if the problem is not solved quickly. The final, and most significant obstacle, as we mentioned earlier, is cost. We anticipate costs will double in the next ten years, despite the fact that rose production is a key part of Ecuador’s cultural and economic history. Ecuador is known for having the best quality roses in the world, followed by Kenya and Colombia. But, if costs cannot be brought under control, reliable water sources cannot be established and maintained, and financing can not be reliably secured, Ecuador can expect to be surpassed by Kenya in less than five years, making our sustainability an even greater challenge.

3) Have your workers provided suggestions as to how best to improve workflow? If so, would you mind sharing one of those suggestions with us, as well as how you went about implementing it?

However, this is an ongoing issue, since we are a fair trade-certified plantation. Fair Trade means that the workers receive a percentage of the final consumer price of the roses, and they get to spend it/invest it as they wish. So far they have done the above projects as well as taken courses in rudimentary finance, project finance, history of labor unions, etc. It is a very empowering system and leads to ideas coming from the bottom-up rather than a trickle down system. Our workers are organized, and they have their own workers committee in which they are able to organize independently and provide suggestions to management regarding social, health, agriculture and other matters. The committee also possesses a micro-finance organization that provides scholarships. There is also an organic vegetable testing area, which we use to teach our employees to grow organic vegetables at home.

In one instance, we met with workers regarding a poorly planned medical treatment. The workers discussed the matter independent of management and suggested a better way, which we implemented immediately.

4) For those interested in supporting farms that do similar work, how do you recommend they go about providing that support outside of merely buying products? Is there a social entrepreneurship pathway for these individuals?

Purchasing the roses really is the best way to support the work we do. It helps provide our workers with the fair trade certifications they need, and helps guarantee the continued success of green agriculture. However, with that said, we are working with educational institutions, such as Tulane University, on innovative and sustainable greenhouse projects. We also aid other organizations on a number of projects and are continually looking for new partnerships.

5) What is the latest innovation you are following right now that you believe others should be aware of?

For us, it’s all about bringing the organic rose to the dining table. We are currently developing new types of edible roses in combination with other food products. Examples of this are Rose Honey and Rose Marmalade. We are focusing on rose-based products to complement and augment the traditional product base.

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