09/18/2006

The Bride Wore Green

By Liz Savage

Last May, a young Cambridge couple got married in front of their 200 closest friends and family at a Japanese garden in Saratoga, California, just south of San Francisco. But unlike most of the 2.2 million weddings this year, there were no flowers, no gifts, no white dress, no diamond ring. Theirs was a “green” wedding. Every last detail—from the cake to the dress, the invitations to the transportation—was chosen to minimize the environmental impact of their wedding.

Nik Kaestner and Kristy Wang’s wedding may be an extreme example, but they represent the growing number of couples choosing eco-friendly weddings. And now the wedding industry is taking notice. There is a company for all your green wedding needs—recycled gold rings, recycled paper for invitations, biodegradable plastic plates made of corn. Green wedding consultants are popping up across the country. Hemp-silk wedding gowns can be custom made. Caterers offer organic and locally grown menus. Ecotourism companies are gaining popularity with honeymooners anxious to reduce their impact on the environment and contribute to the economic development of local cultures.

One wedding may not seem like it could do much damage, but taken as a whole, the wedding industry has a dramatic impact on the environment. According to a survey by the Fairchild Bridal Group, the company that owns leading bridal magazines such as Brides, Elegant Bride, and Modern Bride, last year couples spent an average of $25,000 on their wedding. About 295 million guests attended these weddings.

“The waste can be incredible at these events,” said Corina Beczner, who is opening her own sustainable wedding consulting business called Vibrant. “People have a very cookie cutter idea of what a wedding should be.”

For Nik and Kristy, there was no question that their wedding would be green. Nik, an environmental consultant who works with Boston-based Green Restaurant Association, and Kristy, a graduate student at MIT studying urban planning, wanted their wedding to be an extension of their everyday commitment to sustainable living. They share a car with Kristy’s sister, and rarely drive more than once a month, but this commitment is equally apparent in the smallest gestures. When I met the couple at a café near their apartment, Nik asked for his pastries on a piece of wax paper rather than the default plastic plate. When Kristy orders her ice cream in a cup, Nik suggests she get a cone instead.

“I think that the interest in green weddings is part of the larger trend toward green living in general,” said Valerie Edmunds, who owns Green Elegance Weddings. “Folks who are getting married are at a stage where they are looking closely at their personal values and trying to find ways to demonstrate them. So if environmentally and socially responsible values are a part of who they are, they want to incorporate that into their celebration.”

The bulk of the environmental impact of weddings comes from getting all those guests to the event. Since, according to Nik, “transportation is the greatest environmental sin,” and most their family lives in California, Nik and Kristy decided to hold the wedding there to save energy. They are renting a bus to take guests to the picnic reception, but if guests do have to drive, the couple asked that they use hybrid cars, which are available to rent in California. Nik and Kristy calculated how much carbon dioxide will be released when their 200 guests travel to their wedding, and to offset these and other wedding-related emissions, they are donating money to an organization that will plant trees in their honor in Haiti, a country that has been almost entirely deforested. It will take 8000 trees and $200 to make their wedding carbon neutral.

Flowers can be another pitfall of traditional weddings. “We know we don’t want any pouffy bouquets of flowers,” which just get thrown out after the wedding, Kristy said. Non-organic flowers can’t be composted because of the use of pesticides.

According to the Department of Agriculture, 70 percent of all flowers sold in the U.S. are grown using pesticides in Columbia and Ecuador and then transported to the United States. Besides being grown with pesticides, these flowers must then be transported to the United States, which will result in more emissions. Organic or locally grown options are pretty scarce; organic flowers make up only 4 percent of the U.S. cut-flower market.  But Pam Keefe, a florist at Nature’s Design in Boston, says there are many equally lovely alternatives if you are committed to the organic route, such as a bouquet of lavender or an arrangement of dried flowers.

Many couples, including Nik and Kristy, request that guests either forego gift-giving or donate to a charity in lieu of a gift. Not only do they hope to reduce the consumerism of their wedding, but it is also, in some cases, more practical. The average age for marriage has risen to 27 for women and to 29 for men, and more couples are living together before getting married, so many couples already have the things they need for their life together. Some less selfless couples may simply ask that presents not be gift wrapped to save on paper.

For Nik and Kristy, having a green wedding is not about converting all of their friends and family. But, Nik said, “We hope to get people to realize that everything they do has an impact.” Of course, Nik and Kristy admit, if they really wanted to reduce the environmental impact of their wedding, they wouldn’t have invited 200 people. But the couple said being green is not about depriving yourself; rather, it’s about being conscious of the choices you make. For example, Kristy chose a red silk dress so that she can wear it again. Traditional wedding dresses are usually made from man-made materials like polyester, nylon, and rayon, and rarely worn more than once.

“Do you save the world by having an organic wedding? No. But our actions are cumulative. We need to think about the environmental footprint that we leave,” said Kathleen Merrigan, director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at Tufts University. “You do what you can when you can.”