Every year more than two million U.S. couples walk down the aisle—to the tune of about $26,000 per wedding. That adds up to some scary math: Not only do these nuptials rake in billions for the wedding industry, they also call for serious environmental resources at every turn, from diamonds and paper to fuel and flowers.
A budding number of brides and grooms are now considering greener alternatives to conventional wedding elements. The latest studies by The Wedding Report, Inc., a research company that tracks and forecasts consumer trends in the industry, indicate that the number of weddings planned with environmental issues in mind is approaching roughly 10 percent. A poll conducted in 2010 for megastore David’s Bridal reported that 78 percent of 501 women interviewed said they want to make some part of their weddings eco-friendly. “The whole idea of a green wedding really fits with the concept of marriage,” says Kate L. Harrison, author of The Green Bride Guide and founder of Greenbrideguide.com. “A wedding is a celebration of a long-term commitment into the foreseeable future. Having a green wedding goes lock in key with that.”
When couples are uncertain about where to start, Harrison advises beginning with one element—choose a recycled-paper invite, go with a natural park setting, order local flowers, forgo the wedding favors—then see if you can take another step. “These are little things,” she says, “but they really add up.” Another benefit: Picking wisely can cut a wedding’s price tag by as much as 40 percent. The following are some choices that can help you save in more ways than one.
Jewelry “Diamonds are forever,” as the slogan goes, but so might be the damage from getting them out of the ground. Instead of these gems, as well as mined gold and silver settings, consider family heirlooms and antiques, lab-made synthetic stones, and alternative metals like recycled platinum. If you can’t live without a mined diamond, opt for one certified by the Kimberley Process, the best vetting currently available, ensuring that before the gemstone hits the market, it has met extensive safe-practice standards.
Venue When and where you get hitched is another key consideration. If you say “I do” during the daytime, for example, you can save on electricity to power lights. When picking a place to get married, check out locations that are LEED-certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, meaning they are, among other things, energy-efficient, water-saving, and built from environment-friendly materials. To find locations, visit the organization’s website, which includes a searchable database. Look to nature centers, gardens, or historical sites; payment for your big day may directly support the organization’s mission. Save fuel and carbon emissions by choosing a location central to your guests.
Guest list The number of people you invite to your celebration plays a big role in budgeting a wedding’s environmental and financial costs. Scaling back your total headcount can be tough, but the savings are substantial—reducing your party’s overall contribution to the more than six billion metric tons of greenhouse gases emitted annually in the United States, more than a quarter of which come from the transportation sector. Also, hosting fewer people means less of everything, from place settings and food to table decorations and porta-potties.
Invites What could better announce a couple’s commitment to an earth-friendly union than an invitation made from recycled paper and soy-based ink, the latter of which requires less ink for the same print job and emits fewer volatile hydrocarbons, according to an EPA study. Take another step and go paperless altogether. Inform guests about your upcoming event and have them respond through a site like Paperless Post or by email. Consider the alternative: If all the country’s matrimonial couples sent both a paper save-the-date and invitation card, the postal service would shuttle more than four million pieces of mail, contributing to the 71 million tons of paper and paperboard we consume each year.
Attire Few icons epitomize a wedding more than the dress, whether it’s a fitted ball gown or a flowing sheath. By virtue of what the item is, you’ll wear it only once. Instead of buying brand new, consider a dress worn by mom or grandma. Search for your frock at a secondhand or vintage store TheThriftShopper.com lets you plug in a zip code to find nearby locations). Or browse a place like The Bridal Garden, which offers deeply discounted off-the-rack dresses, then donates the proceeds to charity. After the wedding, give your dress to an organization like Brides Against Breast Cancer or pass it on to another modern bride via eBay.
Makeup For the bride and her attendants, it’s all about looking beautiful, and makeup is a big part of that. Purchase natural cosmetics and water-based nail polishes. This is more important than you may think; many personal care products contain chemicals, such as endocrine disrupters, associated with health problems (see “Pandora’s Water Bottle,” March-April 2010). A recent FDA survey of 400 lipsticks found a sample that contained more than seven parts per million of lead—double the amount discovered in an earlier agency study—suggesting a worse and more widespread problem than previously thought. No upper lead limit has yet been set, but several U.S. senators have urged the FDA to establish one. In March Congress held a hearing on cosmetics safety—the first in three decades. To check where your current cosmetics rank, search the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.
Menu Foodies who care about the environment don’t have to sacrifice taste. Look for a caterer who specializes in local or organic fare. Selecting edibles grown nearby saves carbon emissions generated from buying the same staples shipped from far away. If you live near one of the country’s more than 7,200 farmers’ markets, stop by and talk to the purveyors to see if they partner with or know of local caterers. As for the menu, limit lamb, beef, and cheese or nix them completely; pound for pound, their production emits the most greenhouse gases, according to an Environmental Working Group assessment. Finally, don’t forget to factor in beverages, alcoholic or otherwise. Go for organic wine, wind-powered beer, and shade-grown coffee.
Flowers Beautiful bouquets go hand in hand with most weddings, and there’s no need to toss them if you’re trying to be green. Pick local, in-season blossoms—say, summer lilies in California or fall asters in the Northeast—instead of flying them in from Colombia, for instance, where more than half of the flowers sold in the United States each year are grown. Skip roses altogether; they are among the most chemically treated flowers. If you simply can’t live without them, choose those okayed by a group like Florverde, a 16-year-old initiative in Colombia that promotes sustainable floriculture by monitoring, among other things, farming practices and pesticide use. If you have no attachment to flowers, get creative (or let others do it for you) with recycled paper, bouquets made of vintage buttons or broaches, and antiques for table centerpieces.
Favors When it comes to thanking your guests, do it with words or a gift to charity rather than a trinket. The memory of a simple, short toast by the bride and groom will likely mean more to friends and family than party mints, silver-plated frames, or candles. In lieu of purchased items, donate to a cause that you and your future spouse believe in; let your guests know with a note on each table. For help finding charities, check out the I Do Foundation, which works with nonprofits (including the National Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Rainforest Alliance). There’s always the greenery route, too, offering your potted-plant centerpieces as takeaway gifts. Omitting a random token from your wedding reinforces to your guests that you care about the environment.
Photography Couples spend $2,000, on average, on wedding photographers. That’s about eight percent of a typical wedding budget. To stop this from adding to your day’s environmental costs, find someone who shoots digitally (almost all photographers do), then ask about other green practices. Many photographers these days give you the preferable option of receiving digital proofs rather than stacks of paper prints. Some recycle and resell old equipment. Others may print your final selections with vegetable- and soy-based inks.
Honeymoon Take your first trip as a married couple to a destination that’s in line with your wedding choices. Honeymoon somewhere close, and you’ll help curb carbon emissions (a 4,500-mile trip from New York City to Acapulco generates three tons of carbon dioxide). If you do fly, purchase carbon credits to offset travel emissions through a group like NativeEnergy or Carbonfund.org. When picking your accommodations, be sure to choose a genuine eco-lodge that’s built from sustainable resources, supports area conservation efforts, employs local people, and uses energy-saving technologies like solar power.
This story originally ran in the May-June 2012 issue as, "Modern Bride."
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With 50 centers and thousands of acres of land, Audubon offers many ideal places to host a green wedding. Here are five where you can tie the knot.
Dayton, Ohio: Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm, (937) 890-7360. Ask for Ardith Hamilton.
Brooklyn, New York: Audubon Center at the Prospect Park Boathouse, (646) 393-9031. Ask for Christina Kuhn.
Santa Fe, New Mexic: Randall Davey Audubon Center & Sanctuary, (505) 983-4609. Ask for Carl Beal.
Tiburon, California: Richardson Bay Audubon Center & Sanctuary, (415) 388-2524. Ask for Gretchen Grani.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, (414) 352-2880, ext. 141. Ask for Julia Kathan.
To locate an Audubon center or chapter near you, search here.