Jo Thompson on education that inspires

From the beginning, we intended the SFN education model to foster hope and inspire positive change.

So when Jo Thompson contacted the SFN in January 2022, we couldn’t have been more excited. Jo is a third-generation flower farmer with 15 years experience teaching Education for Sustainable Development in higher education.

Quite simply, Jo was put on Earth to be the SFN’s Education Officer.

Thanks to her guidance and influence throughout the development process, our first course sailed through CPD accreditation.

To help readers understand where these ideas about “sustainable floristry” come from, and what inspires experienced sustainability educators, we invited Jo to share her story.


Images: David Broadbent

SFN Education Officer Jo Thompson

I worked part-time as a florist in my 20s, then life took me off to university and later away to work in the Middle East. But I kept my passion for gardening and all things floral.

It’s in my blood. My Grandad had been a flower farmer and my Mum helped pack and deliver his beautiful blooms. I never lost the childhood notion that their flowers ended up at Covent Garden, like a scene with Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. Like many other growers, his farm suffered after the closure of his local train station and transport infrastructure during the ‘Beeching Cuts’ in the 1960s and the UK flower industry could no longer compete with imports. I knew one day I would be a flower grower for the third generation, but that lay dormant for some time.


Jo's mother & grandfather on the family farm.

Since moving to the Welsh borders 12 years ago I have been running flower arranging courses, using home grown flowers and farm-foraged foliage, alongside teaching Education for Sustainable Development at university. I had also been conducting research for my doctoral dissertation about how teachers can effectively engage students with climate change and facilitate informed decision-making about the impact their lives have on the environment.

Studying sustainability, or even just seeing the daily headlines about climate change, can feel overwhelming. Seeing the data on the speed of change and the impact of human activity can create one of two states: either eco-anxiety (extreme worry about current and future harm to the environment) or apathy (“I can’t make any real difference, so why bother?”). How can we activate our citizens to drive improvements, without preaching?

When searching for a teaching model (or pedagogy) which could be used to create a curriculum designed to bring people along on a sustainable journey, I came across the work of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator who wrote The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire’s thesis is that the accepted political function of education is to integrate generations to bring about conformity, whereas it should allow people to critically deal with the realities of their situation.

I wondered whether it was possible to look at education, particularly for sustainable development, from a different perspective – one which focussed on taking the collective reality and collaborating to share ideas to improve it. To create a connection with nature that gives students the desire and ability to protect it.

A decade ago, authors Margaret Attwood and Andrew Motion, a previous UK Poet Laureate, called out Oxford Junior Dictionary for replacing ‘natural’ words with technological terms. ‘A’ is for acorn and ‘C’ is for conker were replaced with ‘A’ for attachment and ‘C’ for chatroom. Anti-obesity groups also damned this move and Oxford were forced to reverse their decision to publish the new edition.

How can we worry about the extinction of a plant we never learnt about?

This was my light bulb moment. I dropped out of my PhD to see if it was possible to create ‘Pedagogies of Hope’. Rather than focussing on the dark data, what happens when you shine a light on triumph or innovation or the community action coming out of front-line projects dealing with climate change?

We started with introducing the students to ‘biophilia’, the concept that everyone has a predisposition to be in a nature. This is at the heart of the Swedish ‘forest school’ movement now introduced into most UK schools. There is strong evidence for ‘nature deficit disorder’ – the idea that some mental health issues and behavioural problems, especially in children, could be linked to spending less time outdoors than in the past. It makes sense. I wondered if that is why cut flowers are so popular. Is this an innate desire to bring the outdoors inside, like a grown-up nature table?


Rather than focussing on the dark data, what happens when you shine a light on triumph or innovation or the community action coming out of front-line projects dealing with climate change?

A few years ago I discovered the average bouquet has travelled 4,000 miles to the UK and realised there must to be a more sustainable way to enjoy beautiful commercially-bought flowers. Around the same time we bought 13 acres of land attached to our farmhouse to protect it from development. It seemed an ideal opportunity to create a sustainable flower farm and flower studio – to put my money where my mouth is! However, it was difficult to find formal instruction and accreditation on eco-floristry, with so many qualifications and organisations entrenched in floral foam, ‘forever chemicals’ and imported flowers.

The flower community is a generous and gorgeous space, so it wasn’t long before I found examples of other growers and florists sharing ideas for sustainable floristry. Whether that was Instagram ‘how to’ tutorials on sustainable mechanics, the #nofloralfoam movement in Australia; the founding of a local hub to allow event florists to buy locally grown flowers wholesale, regional meet ups with other growers to swap seeds (avoiding imports), non-profit startups in the heart of their communities providing growing opportunities, good food cafes, or gorilla gardening in disused urban spaces. In the UK the barometer for change was evidenced in the coverage of flowers and floristry for the Queen Elizabeth’s funeral and recent Coronation of HM King Charles III – led by the work of SFN Industry Advisor Shane Connolly. Could simply sharing stories and case studies on positive action around climate change within the floral industry encourage florists to think more about the provenance of their flowers, the resources used and the waste created? Balancing the benefits of mindset-switching with information about the impact of the floral industry – to be leaders of change, not leave florists feeling scolded.


The flower community is a generous and gorgeous space, so it wasn’t long before I found examples of other growers and florists sharing ideas for sustainable floristry.

The ‘slow flower’ movement has been gaining momentum in the last decade. More and more customers are looking for seasonal, locally grown flowers in just the same way they might consider food provenance. They are aware of the benefits to the planet and people in making that choice. Flowers that aren’t grown with chemicals, so you are not afraid to inhale their perfume. Beautiful blooms that don’t cost the earth!

Jo Thompson is the SFN’s Education Officer and owner of Wye Valley Flowers.