A wedding marks the start of a lifelong partnership. Unfortunately, love isn’t the only thing that’s lifelong about your big day. Kate Harrison, author of “The Green Bride Guide,” reports that the average wedding produces 400 pounds of waste and 63 tons of carbon dioxide. Multiply those numbers by the 2.6 million weddings that took place in the U.S. last year, according to The Knot’s 2022 Real Weddings Study, and that’s more than 1 billion pounds of waste and nearly 164 million tons of carbon dioxide. According to the Solid Waste Association of North America, some of this waste will take hundreds of years to break down.
What contributes to this waste? Almost every aspect of a wedding. Invitations, programs, food, decor, flowers, napkins and favors often end up being thrown away. Things such as travel, non-eco-friendly labor practices, and the importing of goods and materials also add to the overall carbon footprint.
Noelle Parent, owner of Blue Sage Bridal in Richmond, has been in the wedding industry for 20 years and has seen “an incredible amount of waste” during this time. “Food goes in the trash. Decor goes in the trash. Flowers go in the trash. Basically, a wedding is a disposable event,” she says.
Previously working in the event industry and seeing firsthand how much waste is produced is what led Kristi Kim to aim to make more sustainable choices for her wedding to Zach Hernandez at Havana ’59. As of press time she was planning her May 2023 wedding. “It always really bothered me,” she says, referring to the amount of work and products that she’s seen go into creating a beautiful event, only for it to be thrown away at the end of the night.
This large carbon footprint can be a dilemma for couples who want to be eco-friendly and have the day of their dreams, but options are available to help curb the environmental impact of weddings.
Jennifer Bennour, an eco-conscious planner and owner of Fête du Jour Events, says, “People might say ‘It’s just one day, it won’t make a difference if we don’t make some swaps.’ But with about 2 million weddings happening in the U.S. every year, each one can absolutely make a difference.”
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, more than 34 billion pounds of textiles are discarded every year with 66% ending up in landfills. Most of this waste is produced by fast fashion brands, including those in the wedding industry. A way to combat this is to opt for rental or consignment suits and dresses for your big day.
Blue Sage Bridal offers both sample and consignment gowns. Parent says that most wedding gowns are made to order overseas, which requires manufacturers to source fabric and materials then ship the gown to the buyer. This process creates waste and emissions, but purchasing a dress from a store like Parent’s can help offset these negative effects on the environment.
“The clothing industry has a huge impact on the environment in terms of labor and the products [dresses] are made of,” Parent says. “If you’re choosing a dress that’s been worn before, that’s two or three people who have not had to put a new dress into production.”
Shoppers at Blue Sage Bridal often purchase consignment dresses for cost-saving and sustainability purposes, but others are still only interested in buying something new. Parent contends this is due to misconceptions about wearing a secondhand gown.
“There’s a lot of stigma around consigned wedding dresses, that they come from divorces, which is not the case. A majority of the dresses we get are from people happily married but [who] don’t want to hang onto their wedding dress or they bought a dress and changed their mind and brought their first dress to us,” she says.
Blue Sage Bridal encourages brides to look through their consignment and sample inventory even if they come in thinking they want a made-to-order dress. “It’s sad to me that they’re closing themselves off from a sustainable dress,” Parent says. “I’d like to see more brides wearing a consignment dress.”
In addition to brides making sustainable choices for their dresses, Bennour recommends trying to cut down on single-wear clothing for the wedding party, too, to avoid pieces potentially ending up in landfills. “Let your wedding party pick their own dresses. They will have a better chance of wearing it more than once if it’s something they like,” she says.
Wedding waste begins months in advance of the wedding, as soon as the couple starts sending paper goods such as save the dates, RSVPs and shower invitations to guests. Sure, paper is recyclable, but there are other more sustainable options to consider.
“I recommend that my clients use a printer who uses natural materials that are compostable, biodegradable or made of seed paper,” says Helen Elyse Row, wedding and event planner and owner of Sonder Event Co. “I also tell them to shy away from vellum as well as vinyl.”
As green options become more commonplace, it’s easier to find recycled paper and seed paper invitations from vendors such as Afterglow Paper Co. in Scott’s Addition and Merrymaker Fine Paper in Carytown. But for those who want to cut out paper entirely, there are also electronic options.
Kim and her fiance sent digital invitations to their guests, and as of press time, were planning to go mostly digital for their wedding as well. “To cut down on the amount of paper, I’m going to be putting QR codes around for the program so people can access [it] through our website, and I’m doing the same thing for our menus,” she says.
Websites such as Paperless Post and Greenvelope offer customizable digital options for invitations that can also help track response to RSVPs.
It’s unimaginable that something so beautiful can be deemed trash at the end of an event, but this is the case when it comes to wedding flowers. If florals are a must-have, there are several sustainable practices to keep in mind when including them in your event.
Shopping locally, especially from florists who source blooms from local farmers, is key to making your wedding bouquets and centerpieces more eco-friendly. Row recommends Richmond-based businesses FIELD and Fleure Studio, and Parent suggests River City Flower Exchange, an all-local flower market, for green-minded options.
It’s also important to consider how the flowers could be used after the reception. Consider giving your arrangements to guests as favors or donate them to nursing homes or hospitals. Organizations such as The Simple Sunflower and some florists including The Flower Guy Bron donate flowers after big events.
Planners including Row and Christine Haines Greenberg, the creative director and founder of bridal boutique Urban Set Bride and wedding planning firm The Hive Wedding Collective, recommend using potted plants instead that can then be given away as favors at the end of the night.
There are also artificial alternatives that are just as beautiful. Parent suggests incorporating silk or sola wood flowers that can be passed on for other couples to use. “Sometimes people will do a mix with some real, some silk. I don’t think you can tell the difference,” she says.
Like paper goods, guest favors are a main component of wedding waste that can be swapped for something more sustainable. “After seeing how many favors get thrown in the trash, I tell my couples to have an edible favor or none at all,” Row says.
Similarly, Bennour recommends having favors that are also name or escort cards, so they serve more than one purpose and cut down on the overall number of products used. She also tells clients to buy favors for only half the number of guests invited, because people either won’t want them or will forget to grab them on their way out.
As a former wedding planner, Parent would often suggest foregoing favors altogether or encourage couples to do something even more meaningful. “I recommend my couples make a donation for each person coming,” she says, adding that she once had a bride whose father passed away from a heart-related disease, so the couple made a donation to the American Heart Association in his honor. “People loved that.”
Parent suggests adding a sign to each guest table explaining that in lieu of favors, a donation will be made to a charity that’s meaningful to the couple. She also points out that if brides and grooms really want to make a statement with their sustainability efforts, they could donate to an organization that supports the environment.
Decorations set the tone for the wedding day and help a couple express their personalities and tell their unique love story. But as much value as it adds to the event, it can add an equal amount of waste. To mitigate this, Greenberg says, “Opting to rent most of your decor is a wonderful way to reuse items and keep them out of a landfill.”
Parent also prefers renting decor rather than buying it new and recommends couples use companies such as Paisley & Jade in Manchester and Rent-E-Quip in Colonial Heights.
Similarly, Bennour suggests opting for rentals or buying secondhand through sources such as Facebook Marketplace. Wedding Buy and Sell Richmond, VA is a popular Facebook group where its more than 16,000 members can search for professional vendors and gently used items and sell their leftover wedding decor.
The Mitchells heavily utilized online marketplace services for their wedding. “We decided to purchase the majority of our big decor from Facebook Marketplace.” Erica says. “Not only was it cheaper, but it kept a smaller footprint of mass-produced items in our wedding. We kept everything in great condition and were able to resell it back to Facebook Marketplace.”
Other popular places to find sustainable secondhand items are thrift and antique shops. Row often uses this method to source vintage pieces for her clients’ weddings. She also has a large inventory of gifted items from past events and her own vintage pieces that couples are free to pull from rather than making new purchases.
“I have a wedding [in May 2023] that is using a lot of chinoiserie, so instead of buying from big online retailers, I’ve spent the last year sourcing antique pieces,” she says. “Additionally, I have a collection of 58 brass candlesticks all sourced from different vintage stores that five of my clients have used this calendar year.”
Row also encourages couples to choose a venue that has some rentals included. She recommends finding a location such as Louisa County’s Avonlea Farms, which comes with farm tables and chairs. Cutting down on the number of rental deliveries that take place on your wedding day will also cut down on gas emissions.
The Conservation Law Foundation reports that an estimated 125 to 160 billion pounds of food are wasted each year in America. With that in mind, it’s no wonder that food and disposable serveware also comprise most of the waste produced by weddings.
“Food is a huge contributor to waste,” Row says. “I typically suggest a buffet so the food can be packed up at the end of the night. With a plated meal, there’s typically a lot left on the plate. With a buffet, people can eat as much as they wish, and leftovers can be taken home with the clients.”
Kim and Hernandez heeded this advice, offering a buffet-style dinner at their Havana ’59 reception. They also added vegan options to their menu and made sure to factor in how food and drinks would be served.
“We’re making sure not to use single-use items, except straws and beverage napkins that will be [made from hay] and bamboo that are recyclable. Other than that, everything is going to be rented and reused for other events down the line,” Kim says.
Avoiding single-use items was also important to Erica and Craig Mitchell, who wed on Oct. 27, 2022, at Hanover Tavern. One of the reasons they selected the venue was because they wanted “somewhere that reused dishes and used washable tablecloths.”
In addition to incorporating reusable serveware or plant-based bamboo plates and cutlery, Bennour also recommends having your wedding composted.
“There are companies who will do this [for] as low as $150, so it’s not breaking the bank and can make the biggest difference in the waste produced,” she says.
One such company is Compost RVA. Founded by Bruno Welsh, its mission is to make composting easier for everyone through services for businesses and homes. They also provide pick-ups and consulting for weddings.
“A wedding can have an enormous amount of leftover food that ends up in the trash. One option within that as a composter, is offering clients options of local food programs they can donate their food to or other options to decrease waste,” Welsh says. “The basic idea is to push home the idea of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle and compost.’ ”
Welsh and Parent both urge couples to use caterers who source local ingredients for their meals. Parent recommends Harvest Moon Catering in Charlottesville, saying they make a strong attempt to be more sustainable and offer a farm-to-table experience.
Additional Sustainable Suggestions for Weddings
- Shop local and support regional farmers for food and flowers.
- Offer group transportation to cut down on the number of guests driving themselves.
- Keep your guest count small.
- Host your wedding at an eco-conscious or LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) venue.
- Enlist a hair and makeup business that uses eco-friendly products.