Patch Plants

overall rating:

1.3

planets

Jack Byrne
8/6/2021
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The demand for house plants has been steadily increasing over the last decade, however, this trend has accelerated over the last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. In an increasingly digitalised world, people are turning to house plants to reconnect with nature. According to evolutionary biologist E. O Wilson’s “biophilia” theory, there are evolutionary reasons why people seek out nature experiences. Countless studies have shown that living near nature, being in nature, or even viewing nature in videos and paintings can have a positive impact on an individual’s psychological wellbeing.

I own many house plants. I’ve bought some and I’ve been gifted some, and they’ve certainly had a positive impact on my mental wellbeing. Having something to nurture is good for the human spirit, but I’ve long wondered about the environmental implications of owning house plants, particularly those of the more exotic kind that are grown elsewhere in the world. I came across Patch Plants, a British online plant store, during the pandemic.

Pros: Patch aims to bring colour to indoor urban spaces. The mental health benefits of this are well documented and the company has managed to thrive in an increasingly competitive space, the online plant retail industry. Patch is steadily growing and it is now beginning to prioritise issues of sustainability. Patch generates little waste due to its just-in-time and to-order business model. Patch is aiming to become B Corp certified, which is great.


Cons: Like most companies these days, there are issues of transparency. Instead of telling me you are sustainable, show me. Let me evaluate your sustainability. I have no understanding of Patch’s manufacturers in the Global South and of its growers in mainland Europe. If Patch wants to sure up a Millennial and Gen Z consumer base, it must strive to become as open and transparent as possible. We want to know where our products are coming from, how they are made, and how workers are treated.

What it's made of:

1.5

Patch Plants was founded in 2015 with the mission of creating greener and more vibrant indoor city spaces, not greyer ones. Patch Plants is an online plant shop that sells three categories of products: plants, plant accessories and products related to plant care. Examples of such products include secateurs/pruning clippers, watering cans, compost scoops, plant pots, and misters, among others. Patch Plants baptises each plant with a human name rather than relying on Latin terms, a unique marketing approach I have not seen elsewhere. I would much rather see a Boston Fern labelled “Bertie” than with a sticker saying Nephrolepis exaltata, but that’s just me. As a beginner plant enthusiast, I find the Latin names a bit intimidating and cold. This unique marketing approach creates a more personal connection between plant and owner. From Monty, the narrow-leaved fig, to Ringo, the philodendron fun bun, Patch has a unique way of connecting people to plants.

In terms of the company itself, it operates differently to traditional garden centres found in places like B&Q or IKEA. Holland is central to the European plant industry as most plants are grown in nurseries in the Netherlands. Traditionally, plants would arrive in from Holland and be immediately transported to distribution centres. Only then would they be transported to garden centres or retail outlets. Here, plants often lay idle on shelves for weeks at a time prior to being purchased, at which point they are transported home. Unfortunately, quite a significant proportion of plants are not sold and are eventually thrown out, generating waste in the process. Patch’s just-in-time and to-order business model means few plants are thrown out. Unlike traditional retailers that purchase in bulk, Patch only purchases from its Dutch suppliers when a customer has made an online order. Patch Plants cuts out the middleman – the garden centre or retail outlet – by shipping directly to people’s homes. There’s no idle waiting in retail shops.

Each plant carries a certain number of “plant miles” (ie., the miles associated with transport from mainland Europe to the UK). These “plant miles” carry with them a certain carbon footprint. If a plant is transported by plane, for example, those “plant miles” would be associated with high levels of greenhouse gases. For this reason, I initially thought that transport-related emissions would be higher for Patch as it uses Holland-based plant nurseries rather than UK-based nurseries, however, I am not so sure. According to a 2020 Guardian article, most of the transportation occurs by ferry which produces only a fraction of the carbon emissions that airfreight transport would produce. Also, Holland is as close, if not closer, to London than many nurseries located elsewhere in the UK. For context, the distance between Hofland Flowering Plants in Naaldwijk, South Holland and London is 45 miles shorter than the distance between Daisy Clough Nursery, considered one of the best plant nurseries in the UK, according to The English Garden magazine, and London. I appreciate this argument is slightly flawed as there are several plant nurseries located on the outskirts of London. However, it is worth remembering that road transport carries a significantly higher carbon footprint per kilometre of travel than does transport by ferry (19 g for ferry versus 171 g and 192 g for diesel or petrol car, respectively).

Each plant in Patch’s range comes with a care guide, facts related to the plant species, and some tips for successful cultivation of your plant. Vivi, for example, is an outdoor evergreen citrus lemon tree who enjoys regular watering, bright light, and a feeding of liquid fertiliser around once per month. Additionally, Vivi is mildly toxic to pets but is child safe. The top tip for growing Vivi is to move her inside during the winter months. Patch provides several houseplant “parenting” courses which cover a range of issues including watering, light levels, humidity, soil, pruning and bugs, among others.

How it's made:

1.2

As I mentioned previously, Patch’s supply chain extends primarily to Holland where its plant nurseries are located, but also to Antwerp, Belgium, where it sources much of its accessories like plants pots and tools. Patch additionally has some production in India, Vietnam, China, and Portugal. Plants arrive from Holland either by ferry and come pre-potted in a plastic “cache” pot. Unfortunately, Patch has not yet transitioned to using biodegradable plant pots to deliver its plants. Plastic, as most of us know, is an extremely problematic material as it is derived from hydrocarbon sources such as oil. Biodegradable plant pots are widely used so I am surprised not to see Patch use them.

When purchasing a plant, the consumer can choose to add a plant pot to their order. Patch’s pots are primarily made from recycled plastic, polystone, terracotta, ceramic, and concrete. Polystone, for example, is a porous material made using powdered stone, such as granite, and a polyurethane resin. Extremely light and durable, polystone has emerged as a popular choice of planter among gardening enthusiasts, however, its inherent reliance on granite, a natural resource which must be mined, is problematic. Not only does granite mining carry a significant environmental impact but is also has a huge impact on the health of its workers. Patch also sells several clay-based pots which are better alternatives than using concrete or polystone pots. Despite the misconceptions around clay-based pots, they are not truly biodegradable. The process for making clay-based pots (eg., terracotta or ceramic pots) can be very environmentally friendly, however, in an increasingly mass-produced world, it is unlikely that traditional methods are used. Terracotta – literally “baked earth” – is made from earthen mud/clay that undergoes a firing process that chemically changes the composition of the clay. The clay becomes impervious to water and a change in crystal structure occurs known as quartz inversion. Earthenware vitrification also occurs which tightens and hardens the clay, leading ultimately to glassification of the clay. These firing processes require extremely high temperatures (quartz inversion and vitrification occur at 573 °C and 1100 °C, respectively).

In an interview with Supply Compass, Frankie Athill, Head of Marketing at Patch Plants, said clearly that sustainability was not a founding principle of the business. After weathering the first couple of “make or break” years, the company has now begun prioritising issues of sustainability. I like this honesty. The business was founded with good intentions, but those good intentions might ultimately amount to nothing if the business fails. Firstly, Patch’s just-in-time, direct-to-consumer model minimises waste as plants are purchased from suppliers only when an online order has been made, never before. As Patch has more control over its supply chain, it has the ability to optimise it as issues arise. You’d be surprised to know how much “air” is transported by delivery services. This arises due to inefficiencies in the delivery process. Patch, on the other, has installed shelves and trolleys in its delivery vehicles, meaning “air” transportation is reduced which in turn reduces the emissions attributed to each plant. There is no information available online about the company’s delivery vehicles and whether they are electric or petrol-consuming. If Patch did indeed use electric vehicles for transporting plants, this would reduce the company’s overall transport-related emissions even further.

Patch has also taken steps in recent years to optimise its packaging. No extra packaging is used during the packaging process, something Patch’s consumers have responded positively to. Patch has worked with its packaging suppliers to “make it as sustainable as possible”, considering issues of reusability and recyclability. I’m always a bit cautious when a company is saying they are making something as “sustainable as possible” without providing much in the way of detail. Patch has also launched a wooden plant stand range made from “sustainably” sourced wood. Again, we don’t know what “sustainably” means in this context. In terms of plant care products, Patch has stopped selling peat-containing compost and now exclusively sells peat-free compost, which is great. Peat-containing compost should be totally outlawed. The benefits gained by using peat-containing compost are minimal at best. Peat is a finite resource that takes hundreds of years to form. We are removing it at a rate that is entirely unsustainable. Peat plays an important role in trapping water. Its removal, therefore, allows water to run into neighbouring valleys and cause severe flooding events. The removal of peat was attributed to Yorkshire’s devastating flash flood events in 2015.

Who makes it:

1

Unfortunately, there is very little information available online about the company’s labour practices. A small company, Patch has around 60 employees according to LinkedIn. Patch is, however, working towards becoming a certified B Corporation. To achieve this certification, Patch must strengthen its company practices in five key areas (termed “Impact Areas”): Governance, Workers, Community, Environment, and Customers. A score of 80/200 is needed for B Corp certification. It is possible to be a B Corp certified company despite having a low score in the Impact Area of Workers, the Impact Area that describes a company’s labour practices. Clearly, like all certifications, B Corp is an imperfect metric. Certification does not necessarily imply excellence, or even sustainability. It does, however, mean that a company is taking the necessary steps to hold itself accountable. Any member of the general public can quickly cross-verify a company on B Corporation’s website and check how well a company is performing in a certain Impact Area.

There is also no information available online about the company’s relationship with its Holland-based growers, or its manufacturers in China, Vietnam, India, or Portugal. As far as I am aware, these manufacturers and growers are autonomous businesses. Patch. therefore, cannot implement its own labour standards. While this is obviously true, I nonetheless want some assurance from Patch that all elements of its supply chain are socially and environmentally responsible. Not to cast aspersions on any country in particular, but many countries in the “Global South” (a term I don’t enjoy using) have lower labour standards, and much fewer workplace regulations, than do European countries. Child labour is frequently used, worker pay is often very low, and occupational health and safety standards are sometimes non-existent. Of course, this does not apply to all workplaces in these regions, but instances of these sorts have been documented to occur. I want to be assured that all elements of Patch’s supply chain are responsible, both socially and environmentally. The lack of transparency here is quite disappointing.