Every year, more than three million people get married in the US, generating some $139 billion for the wedding industry. Factor in air travel for guests, trucking in those perfect roses from Ecuador, and bridesmaids clad in one-wear-only taffeta dresses, and your ecological footprint just expanded about four sizes. What’s an environmentally conscious couple to do?
“When the couple has made choices in integrity with their values that honor the planet, it’s a green wedding. They’ve considered their impact with each choice they’ve made,” says wedding consultant Jessica Rios, of Love Events in Marin County. She stresses that green weddings can be as stylish as the traditional model, with a deeper sense of connection to the spirit of sustainability.
Green wedding and events planner Corina Beczner says, “Creating a wedding that is aligned with a couple’s personal values is new for people. Green weddings are less rigid—there’s a greater sense of freedom and connection to values.”
The trend took off in early 2007, after the New York Times ran a piece called “How Green Was My Wedding.” Many celebrities have gone public with their green nuptials, and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is reportedly planning a green wedding.
What makes a wedding green? Beczner, founder of San Francisco-based Vibrant Events, says that green weddings go beyond the three R’s—reduce, reuse, recycle—by including organic, local, sustainable choices.
Weddings begin with engagements, and most often diamond rings, but you won’t find blood diamonds at a green wedding. Because of the destruction associated with diamond harvesting, couples are choosing alternatives to diamonds for their engagement. Options include synthetic jewels, family heirlooms, or other stones.
The couple can set the tone early with tree-free or recycled invitations. Beczner says a new trend in invites eliminates paper altogether: e-clips, short “save the date” or invitation videos. The couple may set up a Web site where they post details about their wedding, and where guests can respond so that they don’t have to mail in RSVP cards. The couple might list organizations to which guests can make donations in lieu of gifts.
Travel is the most environmentally unfriendly aspect of any wedding. When it comes to location, organic gardens, farms, or green buildings are popular choices for the ceremony, close to the reception site so that guests can walk. The guests can purchase carbon offsets if they fly, or the couple may choose a wedding site closer to home with the ceremony and reception sites in close proximity to one another to encourage walking or biking between locations.
Expect to find seasonal, organic food served on china or compostable materials; the goal is to stay away from disposables. The food can come with organic or local wine and beer if alcohol is served. On tables you might find vintage lace, beeswax candles, and locally grown flowers that are donated or given away afterwards. Some couples opt for potted plants, herbs, or edible arrangements. “One bride I worked with didn’t want flowers that would die,” says Rios. “She had arrangements of red, yellow, and green hot peppers.”
The bride’s dress may be made from organic fibers—bamboo, hemp, or silk—or could be vintage, borrowed, or used, and the wedding party might wear dresses or suits they already own or could wear again. All these green details add up favorably. Says Beczner, “Any wedding generates forty tons of carbon, but green weddings offset the carbons, the equivalent of taking seven cars off the road for a year.”
All this greening must be expensive, right? “If you want your wedding to look like a conventional bridal magazine wedding, it can cost you fifteen to twenty percent more because organics are more expensive,” says Beczner. “Then there is cost associated with carbon offsets and other details. If you want it to look over-the-top and you want to green it, it’ll cost more.”
The average cost of a wedding in San Francisco is already $60,000. Ouch. But a green wedding can demonstrate that bigger is not necessarily better. “There’s this idea that more stuff, more food, fancier dresses, more show, bigger favors, and more gifts will make a great event,” says Beczner. “But you lose focus on the magic behind the wedding—that you’re in love and you’ve invited people to witness that, and that’s the real takeaway. Less becomes more.”
Depending on the couple’s budget and location, a green wedding needn’t be pricier, especially if they incorporate that “less is more” philosophy. “As the market shifts, everything becomes more affordable,” says Rios. “We have many amazing luxuries in California that you may not be able to get in Iowa or Kansas. But my personal opinion is we will all move in a greener direction. Rather than a trend, it will become a consideration.”
For Berkeley’s Elizabeth Zimmer, going green for her wedding had little to do with trends—it was simply the way it had to be. “It’s just the kind of people we are,” says Zimmer. She and her husband Todd were married in a small town in North Carolina in March. Invitations were printed on recycled paper with soy-based inks, and RSVPs were sent via e-mail and phone rather than snail mail. The couple set up a Web site detailing lodging, directions, and travel suggestions.
The food was vegetarian, made within ten miles of the event site. The wedding party wore their own clothes. Guests walked to the reception, and many stayed with neighbors to avoid using hotels. The flowers, well & they may or may not have been sustainably grown. “I asked the florist if he could get organic, locally sourced flowers and he said he would have trouble with that; the resources weren’t available,” says Zimmer. “I doubt if those perfect roses we had were local and organic!”
Zimmer says she doesn’t think that planning her green wedding was more difficult than planning a traditional one, but Beczner says that more research is involved. “How you celebrate while connecting to being responsible really is hard for people to do in events because they happen so quickly. There are tons of materials and energy that go into this event that’s over in an instant,” she says. “When you plan a green wedding, it may take more time to find the right sustainable product or service that will fit the theme or budget.”
When Rios plans weddings, she starts with an in-depth consultation to uncover the couple’s vision and what aspects they would like to integrate into the ceremony. “The greening is interesting to me, but what’s more interesting is the interpersonal relationship,” says Rios. “I enjoy the process of getting a deeper, spiritual awareness of what they’re about as a couple: how they want to be together, how they want to make decisions. I find that choosing to respect the planet makes people happier because the planet is a reflection of us.”
Relatives may worry that the couple is trying to push their ideals on the guests. Rios says that’s not so. “Some couples may want to make it an educational experience, but it’s also a celebration and a great opportunity to share your values with people. You’re making an effort to support markets that are life affirming rather than depleting. It’s a misconception that people who have green weddings will shove it down your throat.”
Northern Californians toss around terms like “sustainability” and “organic” with regularity, but some folks may have a harder time accepting—or even understanding— green wedding ideals. Says Beczner, “Families might be resistant because in their minds, it’s a hippie wedding. And it’s hard since the parents play a big role or may be paying for a wedding. But they’re pleasantly surprised after.” This was the case for Zimmer, whose mother was “completely resistant to having the bridesmaids in different dresses,” Zimmer says. “She was trying to convince me so many times that it wasn’t what I wanted. On the wedding day, she looked at the bridal party and said it was beautiful.”
Rios says generational resistances often dissipate. “The parents see their children making choices that honor themselves. They might think it’s weird, but they get the sense that you’re making choices that are healthy. Anybody who loves you will support you even if they don’t understand it, so in the end, I don’t find there’s a conflict.”
Chances are, you may not even know you’re attending a green wedding. Couples may merely encourage their guests to make sustainable choices in travel or lodging, or they may choose to display a plaque at the ceremony. “Some couples want to educate friends and family, and some don’t,” said Beczner. “All the couples I’ve worked with have put up a plaque that shows all the green things we’ve done. I’ll create the plaque, which says how much carbon we’ve offset along with a list about what’s incorporated and why that matters.”
In the end, after the last piece of cake is eaten, the last dance is over, and the remaining food and flowers are donated, the couple may choose to embark on a green honeymoon—again, purchasing carbon offsets if they travel or vacation off the grid. The Zimmers went to Europe but stayed in friends’ apartments to avoid using hotels.
Whether it’s one big detail or several tiny ones, it’s easy to think green on your wedding day. “Weddings are the biggest and best example that we have in our culture of a gathering where we celebrate love, and part of what makes green weddings rewarding is that there’s a depth of personal experience there,” says Rios. “People leave a good wedding feeling in love with life: they’re happy, and it’s a really amazing experience.”