Lisbeth Prifolgle

The History and Ethics of Valentine’s Day

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On this day, 54 percent of Americans will celebrate with their loved ones this year, at least with their pocketbooks.  According to a poll conducted by the National Retail Foundation, “the average person plans to spend $133.91 on candy, cards, gifts, dinner and more.

Interestingly enough, and contrary to the feminist’s movements call for equality, “Men will spend $108.38 on gifts for their significant others – twice as much as women who will spend $49.41 on their special someone.” And we wonder why men hate Valentine’s Day. Maybe if we increased the sale of beer, bacon, and beef jerky on February 14th, they’d be happier to open their wallet for their special lady.

Without a doubt this is one of the most commercialized holidays, but before I dive into the likelihood that the flowers, chocolates, and jewelry are most likely produced using slave and child labor, I’d like to look at the history of Valentine’s Day.


The original Valentine’s Day celebration was a Pagan fertility celebration called Lupercalia. In pre and ancient Roman culture the Lupercalia festival ran from February 13-15. The ceremony started with the sacrifice of two goats and a dog. After the sacrifice, two noble, and naked, lads were anointed with the blood of the sacrifice. Next the naked lads would cut off the skin of the animals and wear it on their skin. After feasts and other traditions, these Luperci would run around with whips and strike the woman of the town to ensure fertility and ease the pain of child birth. By the 5th century, public performance of pagan rites were outlawed, and new traditions were born for the new religion of the state.

Saint Valentine’s Day

Saint Valentine wasn’t one particular Saint, but a few saints that were martyred by the church. The one that is probably has the most romantic ties was Valentine of Rome, who performed marriage ceremonies to Roman soldiers after the Emperor Claudius II banned them from marrying  because he thought single men made better soldiers. The story goes that while just before his execution, Saint Valentine wrote a letter and signed it “Your Valentine” supposedly starting the tradition of Valentine’s Day cards. As romantic as a pre-execution greeting card might be, it wasn’t until much later that romance and cards were associated with this holiday.

The Commercialization of Romance

It wasn’t until 1382 that romance was associated with the February 14 holiday. The earliest association of romance and Valentine’s Day is in Chaucer’s poem Parlement of Foules:

For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

[“For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”]

However, historians now believe that this was just referencing bird mating season, which at that time they believed to start on February 14th.

The first surviving written Valentine’s greeting was written by Charles, Duke of Orleans in 1415. He wrote a rondeau to his wife when he was held in the Tower of London after being captured during the Battle of Agincourt. During the sixteenth century, it became more commonplace to send a greeting to a Valentine and by the seventeenth century it was a common tradition. The advancement of printing technologies of the time likely had an impact on this tradition. This tradition caught on to the US and by 1840 entrepreneurs were taking advantage of people’s hormones and mass producing cards for Saint Valentine’s Day.

2014 – The Age of Unethical Gifts

This year it’s anticipated that American’s will spend $17.3 billion on Valentine’s Day. My boyfriend and I have been together for five years, but have never celebrated this holiday. It is a mutual agreement that we both eagerly shook hands on during our first year together, not because we are unromantic, pertinacious cynics, but because we really don’t need a special day to declare our love (ok I’ll confess – it’s really just because we don’t like to wait in line at restaurants, and I hate the color pink). When I was single, I didn’t celebrate the holiday either, but I also didn’t mope because society deemed me unlovable and unworthy because I was alone on one day of the year – that’s just silly. This year, I’d like to take a moment of your time to inform you that the 17.3 billion dollars you are spending on last minute flowers, cheap heart candy, jewelry, etc. is promoting child and slave labor, and violence against women. Is that love?! I’d also like to introduce you to a new celebration on Feb 14th.

Roses are Red

Americans will spend approximately 1.7 billion dollars on flowers this week. Most of these flowers are imported from Colombia and Ecuador. Both countries are known to have poor labor laws and ethics. Due to the increase in demand for this week and the quick expiration date of flowers, workers will be required to work up to 20 hour days and new employees, often children, will have to be brought on to support the demand.

The Atlantic reports that “At least 8.3% of flowers in the U.S. were cut by child laborers in Ecuador, or about one in 12 stems. During the school year, 80% of the workers in Ecuador’s enormous flower industry are children.”

The good news is that in Colombia child labor in the flower industry has nearly been eradicated thanks to free trade initiatives by the Bush administration in 2006. Unfortunately, this did not improve the overall working conditions of the fields and there are many health related problems due to the pesticides and herbicides, 20% of which are actually banned in the US because of the toxicity, and generally poor conditions reported by the workers.

Furthermore, if you truly believe in women’s rights, you’ll pass on the flowers this year. Women make up about 65% of Colombian and 50% of Ecuadorian flower workers. According to a study conducted by International Labor Rights Forum, “55% of Ecuadorian flower workers have been the victims of sexual harassment. Many women said that they had been asked out by their bosses or supervisors, who offered to improve their jobs in exchange. Alarmingly, we also learned that 19% of flower workers had been forced to have sex with a coworker or superior and 10% had been sexually attacked.” In order to even get and keep the job, these women are forced to take pregnancy tests or show proof of sterilization so employers can avoid paying maternity leave. Violets are definitely blue for these women. An easy, ethical alternative is to find a florist that uses locally or US grown flowers.


According to the World Cocoa Foundation and the International Cocoa Initiative an estimated 70-75% of the world’s cocoa beans are grown on small farms in West Africa. CNN reports “in the Ivory Coast alone, there are an estimated 200,000 children working the fields, many against their will, to create the chocolate delicacies enjoyed around the world.” What does that mean? Unless you are consuming free trade, ethically harvested chocolate, you are supporting human trafficking and slavery. In 2002, legislation was introduced that would mandate a labeling system for chocolate. The initiative decided to take things to the root of the problem and started the “Cocoa Protocol Initiative”. Instead of labeling chocolate products as “child-free labor,” the initiative called for public reporting by African governments as well as an establishment of an audit system and poverty remediation by 2005. That deadline was extended time and time again and the initiative hasn’t been able to make much progress due to civil wars in the area. For an in-depth report of the Cocoa Protocol Initiative, check out Tulane’s oversight and reports of the initiative as they have had representatives in country monitoring the program since 2006.

What is a chocoholic to do? Look for fair-trade chocolate (shop online if you can’t find any at your local store). What’s great about companies selling fair-trade chocolate, they usually donate a percentage of their proceeds to organizations fighting for better labor conditions on cocoa farms and they are almost always certified organic. Win-win

Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend

Well as long as you’re not a girl in one of the countries where diamonds are mined. The movie “Blood Diamond” exposed some of the gemstone industries corruption and horrible working conditions for men and women, yet we will still spend $3.9 billion this week on jewelry. Here are some facts from World Vision, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating consumers on the poor ethics of the gem industry and fighting for better mining practices:

• An estimated 1 million children work in the mining industry worldwide.
• 80-100 million people are estimated to depend on small-scale mining for their livelihood.
• Gold is one of the goods most widely produced with forced or child labor.
• Rubies are the most expensive gem per carat. More than 90 percent of the global ruby trade comes from Myanmar where forced and child labor has been reported.

There are numerous organizations fighting for fair trade and labor laws, but as a consumer we can help reach a solution faster by educating ourselves and asking retailers:

• Where did the precious metals or gemstones come from?
• Where were the materials processed?
• What processes do they have in place to ensure that the highest labor standards are upheld throughout the supply chain of the product?

Not satisfied with the answer? Don’t buy out of obligation to the calendar and take the time to find a fair trade, ethical jeweler.

It gets worst.

Again, if you say you support women’s rights it’s very important that you look into where your jewelry is mined. Countries like the Dominican Republic of the Congo have been plagued with violence as local militias and international companies fight for the natural resources.

International jewelry companies as well as electronics manufacturers finance local militias to control local populations and force labor, as well as control the mines, trade routes, and other strategic lands. One of the tactics used is ‘mass rape’ to intimidate and control local populations. Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing if your computer, tablet, cell phone, etc. uses ethically mined minerals (essential to the electronic world), so instead of jumping on the latest, greatest device, think about the true cost of that product. Trust me, having an extremely outdated and recycled cell phone isn’t the end of the world!

Vagina Monologues and V-Day

One of my favorite traditions on February 14 is watching a local production of The Vagina Monologues. Playwright Eve Ensler started V-Day in 1998. The website describes it as:

V-Day is a global activist movement to end violence against women and girls. V-Day is a catalyst that promotes creative events to increase awareness, raise money, and revitalize the spirit of existing anti-violence organizations. V-Day generates broader attention for the fight to stop violence against women and girls, including rape, battery, incest, female genital mutilation (FGM), and sex slavery.

Since V-Day started, volunteers around the globe have raised over $100 million, the play has been performed in over 200 countries in 48 languages, benefiting 13,000 anti-violence programs and spread its message to over 1 billion people worldwide.

Happy Ethical Valentine’s Day

If you do celebrate this year, or any other special day throughout the year, do the world a favor and spend some time researching the ethics behind the product you are purchasing. We take a stand each time we purchase items – make sure you are standing on the side of change and fair labor!

Lisbeth Prifogle is a freelance writer, Marine officer, and globetrotter currently in San Diego, CA. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles and a BA from DePauw University. Lisbeth spent six months in Iraq and is working on a memoir about her experiences. She keeps a blog titled The Next Bold Move and her work can be found in the 11th issue of Poem Memoir Story, The Splinter Generation, and In the Know Travel. Lisbeth has had problems balancing hormones since she was a teenager and is constantly researching and exploring natural remedies including diet, exercise, and alternative medicines.

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