How to marry your sweetheart and love the planet
When high-school sweethearts Alicia Gomer and Mark Wittink got engaged in December 2001, they pledged that their wedding would reflect their commitment to ecological issues. Gomer, who is working on an M.S. in environmental science policy, and Wittink, a project director at the Resource Conservation Alliance in Washington, D.C., were “shocked at the lack of green options in wedding planning. We had no idea what a consumptive, high-impact industry weddings can be,” Gomer says.
About 2.4 million couples get married every year in the U.S., at an average cost of $20,000 per wedding, generating total revenues of some $70 billion, according to theknot.com, an online wedding resource. “Since you’ll probably spend more on your wedding than any other single expenditure except your car or home, it’s a chance to support and open markets for local, organic, recycled, and recyclable goods,” says Eric Brown, communications director for the Center for a New American Dream. Michelle Kozin, founder of Organicweddings.com, a full-service, green-wedding-planning company, agrees. “You have a captive audience you can influence with your choices,” she says.
Where to begin? Here’s a green-wedding checklist.
Venue and Food
About half of the average wedding budget is spent on the venue and the caterer, Kozin says. Gomer had dreamed of having her June wedding at a vineyard in the Finger Lakes, near her hometown of Ithaca, N.Y., but she couldn’t find one willing, or able, to serve organic food and wine. Then she thought of the 150-year-old Rose Inn. At first, the food-and-beverage director was reluctant, but he was won over after Gomer explained the health and environmental benefits of food grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, in ways that protect soil, water, and wildlife. As a result, all the food for their wedding, except for wild Alaska salmon (which is not overfished), will be organic and local. (Using local food translates to less fossil fuels used for transportation and fewer post-harvest pesticides.) “We’re still sampling local and organic wines. That’s the fun part,” Gomer says.
When selecting a venue and caterer, Kozin recommends:
- Consider supporting a location and/or a nonprofit organization that’s already interested in or dedicated to green causes: parks, museums, or retreat centers, for example.
- Rather than having everyone come to you, consider choosing a venue close to where the majority of your guests live. This will help cut down on the environmental costs associated with travel.
- For the same reason, hold the ceremony and reception at the same venue and help your guests arrange carpools.
- If you’re looking at a hotel, inn, or restaurant, ask if the food director will cater to your organic and local wishes. If not, ask if you can bring in your own caterer, baker (Gomer’s is a family friend), and wine purveyor.
“Most flowers come from countries where pesticide usage isn’t as regulated as it is here. And, since flowers aren’t a food crop, they’re seldom tested for pesticide residues,” says Margaret Reeves, staff scientist at Pesticide Action Network in San Francisco. “In Latin America and Africa, the laborers on flower farms are mostly women of reproductive age, and exposure to excessive pesticides can be particularly harmful,” she adds.
Some safer options:
- Choose organic fresh flowers. Seek out a local provider, if possible, or try organicbouquet.com.
- Grow your own, or force bulbs if not in season.
- Use dried or silk flowers or decorate with fruits or greenery.
- For more information on choosing environmentally friendly flowers, see our Valentine’s Day column.
Invitations, Programs, and Menus
According to a June 2002 report by the U.S. EPA, close to 40 percent of the material in U.S. landfills is paper. Gomer’s and Wittink’s save-the-date card was printed on recycled junk mail; they also could have used old U.S. currency or denim. (See Creative Papers Online or Handmade Paper Online.) If you’re going to buy paper, look for a non-chlorine-bleached product with at least 30 percent post-consumer waste. Other green-leaning engaged couples have sent out save-the-date cards by email, translating into an environmental savings in paper and transportation fuel.
“Synthetic fabrics cost less, but polyester is petroleum-based,” Kozin says. While cotton suits a spring or summer wedding, it uses an average of 5.8 pounds of pesticides per acre. The most environmentally friendly cotton is certified organic and either not dyed or tinted with gentler natural vegetable dyes. At least one web merchant, Jinjor, offers organic cotton “garden wedding” gowns. (Also check out the International Organic Cotton Directory or the Organic Cotton Site.)
Although Organicweddings.com offers organic cotton and cotton-and-hemp dress shirts for men, Kozin favors a silk-hemp blend for the natural wedding dresses she designs. Better still, you can buy vintage or choose a beautiful dress you can wear again. “I already had a silk crepe dress. It’s simple but beautiful,” Gomer says.
As for the ring, gold mining releases poisonous cyanide and mercury into the environment. Silver is lower impact, or you can have vintage gold rings resized. For more information on environmentally friendly wedding rings, check out what Grist environmental advice columnist Umbra Fisk has to say on the subject.
Favors and Gifts
As favors, Gomer and Wittink decided on organic cloth bags. Other options include:
- Giving organic chocolate or small jars of local honey from your farmers market.
- Making a charitable donation or planting trees in your guests’ names. (See The Green Guide’s Nursery Forest program to donate in support of tree-planting.)
- Requesting or registering for green gifts such as energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs, organic cotton linens (see Heart of Vermont or Gaiam.com) or an organic cotton, chemical-free mattress. See Ecomall.com for more environmentally friendly gifts, and visit the Green Guide’s website for product reports on organic food and wine, clothing, paper, appliances, bedding, and more.
- Note: Do not release butterflies, which can disrupt wild butterflies’ migration and spread disease or parasites, according to the North American Butterfly Association.
Use as few disposable items as possible, to avoid adding to landfills. Request that cleanup staff separate recyclables. If guests don’t pick your tables clean, compost the flowers, or, if they’re still fresh, drop them off at a nursing home, hospital, or other venue that will appreciate them.
Gomer and Wittink plan to honeymoon in an eco-friendly way in Tahiti. “We want to find a lodge that employs local people in management roles, that gives money back to the community, and that treads lightly, using solar energy.” Look to Co-op America’s Green Pages for help with finding truly environmentally friendly eco-tourism. (And read a related Grist article on a green travel agent.)
For more and more couples, getting married provides a natural time to vow to treat the planet, as well as one’s spouse, with respect and love. “A wedding is a time of hope for the newlyweds,” Gomer says. “Why shouldn’t it be that for the environment, too?”