Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Do you have recommendations for hosting large gatherings in a sustainable way?

Lise O.
Wellesley, Mass.

Oh boy.

ShutterstockOh boy.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

A. Dearest Lise,

I, too, love a good party. When my workload here in the stacks allows, I will occasionally indulge in an evening with friends, a good homebrew in hand and Engelbert Humperdinck on the hi-fi. And with the holidays swiftly approaching, I suspect we’re all in for some serious merriment. In fact, some of you may even be kicking off the season with a Halloween gathering this very weekend.

While dishware is a big part of any festal gathering — whether reusable, compostable, or recyclable — we dove into that discussion not long ago. So I’ll focus this column on greening one’s gatherings beyond the forks and knives.

If your parties are anything like mine, you have several factors in play: invitations, festive décor, and what on earth you’re going to feed all these people. Let’s take each one in turn.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.


No surprises here: The best invitation is one that doesn’t get tossed in the recycling bin. For less formal occasions, that means phone calls or simple emails will suffice. If you’re going for a more sophisticated vibe, online invitation sites carry a slew of snazzy, often free designs. Lest you worry that an e-vite leaves something to be desired in the classy department, know that even the venerable Peggy Post has endorsed them for weddings.

If you’re one of those stylish people who simply must incorporate an original design, I’d still advise you away from paper (even recycled paper). Instead, make one invitation to scan and email it as a JPG. Reused paper is another story: You have my blessing to upcycle grocery bags or old cards and invitations as you please.

Oh, and while you’re inviting guests, why not encourage them to walk, bike, bus, train, or carpool to the event? Including easy public transit directions is a nice touch.


I hate to be a party pooper, but traditional party decorations — streamers, plastic banners, balloons — are awfully wasteful, both in the resources required to produce them and their tendency to linger in the environment long after the last stragglers go home. But that doesn’t mean you have to skimp on atmosphere.

Flowers [PDF] from your local farmers market are timelessly elegant. Beeswax candles shed a little petroleum-free mood lighting, and LED party lights outshine incandescents any day. And Mother Nature herself provides boundless decorations. This time of year, think local pumpkins and gourds (bonus: You can eat them when the party’s over), pretty fall leaves, pine cones, grasses, fallen evergreen boughs, even artfully arranged branches. You need never get lost in one of those cavernous party warehouse stores again.

Food and drink

This is often the toughest part of any social function. Cooking for a crowd can be intimidating to some, so much so that serving a bunch of pizzas on disposable plates can start to seem appealing. But we can do better.

The same guidelines that apply to our everyday eating choices also apply to party fare: Strive for locally sourced, organic foods as much as you’re able. Plan your meal around a trip to your farmers market or CSA box, where you’ll automatically be getting seasonal items with a reduced carbon footprint. You’ll also be shopping where fresh fruits and veggies are the star of the show, which leads to my next suggestion: Serve a vegetarian (or even vegan) menu.

One of the biggest ways to lower the overall environmental impact of your shindig is to eliminate meat, the production of which uses lots of arable land, gobbles up grains and water, and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. The reasons to eat lower on the food chain are certainly well-trodden ground, but let’s not forget the most festive one: Veggie dishes are delicious.

Your exact menu will depend on your preferences, what’s in season, and how elaborately you like to cook. Party-friendly choices include bean-based chili, veggie-packed pastas, casseroles, stews, soups, and baked tarts; get started with some of the recipes here and here (the harvest tart with pumpkin, roasted red peppers, and olives is to die for). Regardless of your guests’ opinions about bacon, I guarantee you you’ll find plenty of yummy choices to make everyone happy.

Local also rules when it comes to the drinks. (Yes, not drinking at all would reduce your impact even further, but then nobody will come to your parties.) Reach for local wines to lower transportation costs; extra bonus points for organic and/or biodynamic varieties. And local beers from your neighborhood microbrewery (solid hipster cred), preferably toted in a larger container like a growler, are second only to homebrew (elite-level hipster cred). If liquor is your poison of choice, go here for a quick primer on your organic options.

Party-planning is hard work — and doing so with an environmentally friendly mindset even more so. Don’t get so worn out that you don’t fully enjoy your merrymaking, OK? And guests everywhere: Take pity on your host and pitch in by loading the energy-efficient dishwasher. It’s the least you can do in exchange for those delectable mushroom caps.


Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.