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Green weddings: how to get married ethically

Eifion Rees

3rd December, 2010

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate the coming together of marriage and environmentalism. Do you, reader, take this, the Ecologist, to be your guide to environmentally friendly weddings...

Everyone loves a wedding. Blushing bride, dashing groom, flowing dress, scented bouquet, singing choir, cooing turtledoves, whinnying horses…

All a bit dated, isn’t it? With the decline in organised religion and the disintegration of traditional notions of family, old-school is old hat when it comes to tying the knot these days. Truly white weddings are few and far between (certainly if you acted on last month's Ecologist guide to sex), same-sex marriages are in, with certain grooms as likely as women to be walking down the aisle in a dress – and that’s if the knot gets tied in the first place. Marriage is at its lowest ebb for a century, with growing numbers of us choosing to stay together without the sanction of church or state.

And just as the wedding-vow staples of honouring and obeying have been jilted at the altar, couples are cherry-picking which other parts of the package enjoyed by their parents to jettison. Expense for a start – the average UK wedding costs anything from £12,000-£20,000 – but they’re also increasingly aware of and keen to limit the waste and environmental impact of getting hitched. From dresses to decorations, here’s the Ecologist guide to having a green and ethical wedding…

Wedding wear

We certainly know how to shop in the UK, just not sensibly and sustainably. Clothes prices have dropped by a quarter in recent years, fuelling a mad haberdash for the high street. Of the two million tonnes of clothing we buy every year, 74 per cent ends up in landfill.

Tradition used to dictate that wedding dresses ended up in mothballs, locked away in attics for the grandchildren to yawn over 30 years down the line. Those who buy into the once-in-a-lifetime view of weddings (in defiance of all statistics about divorce) tend also to demand dresses that see the light of day for precisely that amount of time too.

Instead of adding another prêt-a-chuck garment to the pile or consigning it to the attic, why not apply the hire-not-buy principle? Grooms hire their penguin suits, after all. With a multitude of shops renting out wedding dresses of all kinds, including designer brands, for a fraction of the cost of buying one, ethical brides can spend their hard-earned cash on other important aspects of the big day. Remember, a blowsy meringue need not be for life; or rather, not just for one person’s life.

From the simplest to the most extravagantly luxurious, most wedding dresses are made of cotton. It has a high social and environmental cost, however, as the Environmenal Justice Foundation short films White Gold and Cotton make clear. Choose organic cotton if you’re having a dress made, or other environment-friendly materials such as hemp or bamboo – try Uxbridge-based ethical wedding designer Wholly Jo.

Sewing or knitting your own is also an option, or reworking and revitalising an old dress belonging to a family member. You could get the entire wedding party decked out in charity-sop chic or vintage clothing – eBay offers plenty of secondhand or cut-price wedding dresses, while many brides have found the gown of their dreams on Freecycle. You can recycle in turn to recoup your money (Sellmyweddingdress.co.uk – wonder what they do?) or why not buy a dress that you’re likely to use again, or that can be adapted to become part of your everyday wardrobe?

For the ultimate in unlikely marriages, earlier this year fashion and engineering students at Sheffield Hallam University developed a wedding dress made of polyvinyl alcohol, a non-toxic polymer that dissolves in water. One to avoid if you’re a cryer.

Flowers

The cut-flower industry is worth more than £2 billion annually, and billions of blooms go to the great gardener in the sky every year to help make weddings more fragrant. Ask yourself, as you walk through the church, hall or woodland dell, are your family and friends admiring you or wondering where your bouquet/corsage/boutonnière came from?

It’s possible that what ends up crushed in the bridal fist or groom’s buttonhole has actually been farmed industrially in a far-off land, in acres of energy-intensive hothouses in countries where little pesticide regulations exist. A report by War on Want reveals the health costs to workers in Kenya and Colombia of growing cut flowers, while a Behind the Label dedicated to cut flowers gives the full low-down.

If you can’t ascertain that your flowers have been grown locally, organically and sustainably, why not use pot-plants to decorate your wedding venue instead? You could send each guest a bulb or packet of seed with their invite, and ask them to bring their plants to the festivities, or grow your own and give them out as gifts at the end of the night. A pot-plant could work as a bouquet too, but maybe not if the bride is planning on throwing it over her shoulder into a scrum of bridesmaids.

Homemade decorations have the advantage of being cheaper, more personal and more original than shop-bought ones. Get the whole family involved making paperchains, table arrangements, place names or menus.

Put a ring on it

How did bands of a shiny metallic elements and a polymorph of carbon come to symbolise our commitment to each other? Mining for gold is thought to be the most destructive industry in the world; silver may be relatively less harmful, though any mined metal carries an environmental impact, while proposing with a conflict diamond seems a less than auspicious start to married life.

When buying, interrogate jewellers about where their diamonds come from – the UN defines conflict or ‘blood’ diamonds as those that ‘originate from areas controlled by forces or factions opposed to legitimate internationally recognised governments, and are used to fund military action in opposition to those governments, or in contravention of the decisions of the Security Council’.

This year, the Fairtrade and Fairmined gold standards were launched, which will make it possible for millions of impoverished miners around the world to get a fair price for their gold, and for ethical consumers to support them. Ethical, recycled and Fairtrade jewellery is also available from companies such as Fifi Bijoux, Cred and Made.

Transport and gifts

Katie Fewings of Ethical Weddings says the golden rule for a green wedding is to think before spending like crazy, but she also has some advice on getting to the church on time and with as small a carbon footprint as possible. 

‘Think about having the ceremony and wedding breakfast in the same venue, or within walking distance of each other, and both near public transport. If this isn’t possible, help to coordinate car-sharing between your guests.’

She adds that a green gift list will not only help set couples up for a happy eco-friendly life together, but also help their guests discover a whole world of ethical products in the process. If you have your cutlery and bedclothes already, though – and it’s a brave couple these days that take the plunge without first having lived together – then, says Fewings, why not ‘make a real difference to your favourite charity with a charity gift list’.

Eifion Rees is the Ecologist's acting Green Living Editor

 

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