My big fat green wedding

As you prepare for your special day, spare a thought for the environment. Whether you just want to nod in its direction or choose to make a grand gesture, there are many options out there, as Barry Bolton discovered

green wedding
Green wedding: Jane Mackie and Alan Mercer tie the knot in woodland.

The marriage of Liz Hurley to the Indian millionaire Arun Nayar in an intercontinental extravaganza in March gave us a world first: the phrase ‘carbon footprint’ appeared in articles about a celebrity wedding.

Until recently, the event would have been greeted with gush about the opulence and sheer luxury of it all. But the climate has changed a little. Instead of adulation, Hurley flew into a blizzard of headlines about her wedding being an ‘eco-disaster’.

The 41-year-old actress, who has started an organic farm and was building a ‘green-ish’ reputation, was pilloried for the giant carbon footprint left by her week-long nuptials. According to the Oxford-based sustainability consultancy Best Foot Forward, the wedding put out more than 207,000kg of CO2 – an amount it would take the average British couple 10 years to emit and the average Indian couple 123 years.

After preparations that included flying to Milan for dress fittings, the Hurley-burly started with 250 guests at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire – with the likes of Elton John arriving by helicopter and £30,000 worth of white roses in the chapel. It then moved to Mumbai for more partying and on to Jodhpur, with guests in seven chartered planes, for a second, Hindu, ceremony at the Umaid Bhawan Palace hotel. Finally, the couple took themselves off to the Maldives – by private Learjet – for a well-earned honeymoon.

Criticism of the event, condemned by Best Foot Forward as “utter wasteful extravagance”, reflected a growing view that in a world facing huge environmental challenges weddings, like everything else, could be a touch greener. Indeed, just about every aspect of a wedding – from invitations through to the dress, the ring, the flowers, the confetti, presents, food and drink, transport, accommodation and honeymoon – offers the chance to cut those emissions.

Many of those aspects were addressed when Jane Mackie, 43, and Alan Mercer, 41, decided to wed after seven years together. They wanted a celebration that reflected their love of nature and, in particular, of the woodland wilderness of the John Muir Country Park in East Lothian, 30 miles from their home in Edinburgh. “Neither of us really wanted a traditional wedding. We wanted something green-ish and we decided we wanted to do something outside,” says Jane.

After researching Celtic and pre-Christian traditions, and armed with permission from the John Muir park authorities, the couple were married by a Humanist celebrant in a woodland clearing. This was easier to organise than it would be in England; in Scotland you can, with permission, marry virtually anywhere, while south of the border the premises must be licensed for marriages.

 

Emissions-free

“We made a weekend of it, with all the guests staying locally. We tried to involve as many friends as possible in the preparations,” says Jane. Guests were set to work making garlands and floral displays, with almost all the flowers locally grown, avoiding the massive carbon output generated by commercial cut flowers being flown from

South America or Africa. Jane, a former dressmaker, made her own wedding dress, again saving air miles as most dresses are made in the Far East and use lots of hydrocarbon-based polyester. Alan, an insurance executive originally from Ireland, wore a suit of handwoven Donegal tweed, whose dyes traditionally come from gorse flowers, lichen, fuschia and black turf.

To get to the site, the wedding party had a 30-minute emission-free walk through the park, named after the preservationist John Muir, who was born in nearby Dunbar and founded America’s foremost environmental group, the Sierra Club. The centrepiece of the ceremony was a ‘handfasting’ in which the clasped hands of the bride and groom are tied with ribbons. As the hands are parted, the ribbons entwine into a knotted bunch – the origin of the phrase ‘tying the knot’. They also incorporated the Wiccan tradition of jumping over a broomstick, another symbolic act of commitment.

Rose petals were used as confetti and, being outside, in what one slightly surprised passer-by described as “nature’s ownncathedral”, there was no power used for lighting or heating. The reception was at a nearby restaurant with all the food locally produced, again saving on transport costs and supporting local farming.

“I think it was so different from usual that there was a lot of apprehension,” says Jane.

“Because it was out in the woods some people got a bit wound up about what to wear. And with the Scottish weather, I suppose we did take a bit of a risk. But it turned out to be a lovely day.

“Everyone who came seemed to find it really enjoyable and with the simplicity of everything it didn’t cost a fortune either. I think it probably meant more work on our part in planning than an ordinary wedding, but it was well worth it.”

 

Where to start

But you don’t have to head for the hills to make your big day green; even the classic white wedding, church bells and all, can be made more environmentally friendly, though not necessarily any cheaper – the average cost in the UK is reckoned to be between £14,000 and £17,500. A new Church of England guide,

Making the Most of Weddings, by the Rev Andrew Body, a former Relate counsellor, has suggestions for cutting the commercialism and going green, such as ensuring the wedding dress is made from natural, fairtrade material or allowing guests to donate to good causes rather than give you yet another toaster.

And if the prospect of adding ‘green worries’ to the already fraught business of organising a wedding puts you off, a growing number of companies can help.

Some planners, such as TK Weddings, twice winner of the Best Wedding Planner title at the UK national Wedding Awards, now offer a ‘green’ service, while greenweddings.org.uk, set up just a year ago purely to organise ethical weddings, gets thousands of website hits a week.

TK’s founder Tamryn Kirby says: “More and more couples are interested in finding ways to reduce the environmental impact of their wedding day … Even the eggs that are used to make their cakes come under scrutiny and we work with cake makers who refuse to use anything but organic and free range.”

Ruth Culver, who set up Greenweddings, says: “A year ago there was nothing green at wedding shows. I was really struggling to get the message across that green weddings are about ‘eco-chic’, not lentils and hessian. Now all the wedding and lifestyle shows want ethical weddings.”

Organisations such as Friends of the Earth offer advice on green weddings (see www.foe.co.uk) and some charities and aid organisations offer wedding list services to enable guests to buy fairtrade gifts.

With more couples, like Jane and Alan, marrying long after they have set up home and not needing the traditional gifts, there’s also a trend towards asking guests to buy a charitable gift. According to the consumer website productsifter.com, the best alternative wedding list is run by Oxfam (see oxfamunwrapped.com). You can set up a wish list online and your guests can buy through it.

Launched in 2004, and having sold over a million gifts, the site offers such things as a pair of goats, to let someone in the developing world start their own herd, to equipment for safe water, toilets, teacher training or mango saplings. Prices range, for example, from £5 for two school text books to £1,700 to create a classroom. Since 2006, more than 1,700 couples have used the service and on average around 30 couples set up a list each week. According to Oxfam:

“It’s perfect for nearly-weds who already have everything – or those who simply want to do something a little bit different.”

 

Spread the word

Doing the wedding ‘a little bit different’ also lets couples send out a message about their hopes for a more environmentally responsible future. Daphne Lambert, of the Penrhos Court Hotel in Herefordshire, which bills itself as the UK’s only venue dedicated to organic and environmentally friendly weddings, makes the point that often only the couple are committed to ‘going green’ but the wedding can foster the ideas of sustainability for others.

“In our case it’s usually the couples who want to come for the food – all fresh, seasonal and locally produced,” said Daphne, whose organic restaurant was, in 1997, the first to be awarded Soil Association certification. “But with 80 or 90 guests, each wedding then introduces a lot of people to organic food and to the green vision on which our business is built.”

Penrhos Court uses only organic cotton for sheets and towels and sources all its goods from environmentally aware companies.

It is licensed for marriages, so you can have the wedding, reception and guest accommodation all in one place, cutting travel from one venue to another.

And, talking of travel, let’s not forget the honeymoon. All the Big Green Day’s good work could be undone by that long-haul flight to a fortnight in an exotic destination, so plan carefully and consider paying the extra for a carbon offset – it won’t cut your emissions but should help reduce output by the same amount somewhere else.

Weddings are, for many couples, a ‘showoff moment’ and they want to impress their friends. But, says James Kirby, of TK Weddings, “with environmental issues in all walks of life gaining momentum, people are realising that ‘doing it better’ doesn’t necessarily mean having a bigger dress”.

• Originally published in GreenerLiving magazine in May 2007

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peterbatt

Peter a journalist with 30 years experience of freelance writing, UK national newspaper and magazine production roles, and business development. In 2007, he developed and launched a mainstream-style green consumer magazine in the UK, called GreenerLiving, as a means of promoting sustainable change ‘within the system’. GreenerLiving closed during the post-crash recession, but Peter went on to become managing editor of the international ethical business title, Ethical Performance. However, Peter felt that the CSR sector has not succeeded in changing corporate priorities anywhere near fast enough, and so I decided to leave the treadmill of corporate employment and debt accumulation to focus on my own projects. Now poorer but a billion million times happier, he writes on political, economic and social issues – usually seriously, but sometimes as satire. He's currently writing Psychopath Economics, a book about the logic of social and economic power, belief systems, and the rise and fall of societies. Peter is convinced that ordinary people must educate themselves and exercise their economic leverage if we are to avoid social and environmental destruction.

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