How to Have a Sustainable Wedding

When Brittanie Dreghorn first plugged information about her wedding into a carbon footprint calculator created by Less Stuff, More Meaning, an eco-friendly wedding blog, she was surprised to see the environmental impact of just one day.

She then made an increased effort to reduce the carbon footprint of her 100-person wedding to Peter English in October 2022 in a number of ways, including locally sourcing all flowers, food and drinks. But her wedding still had an estimated 22,000 kilograms of CO2 emissions, which mostly stemmed from her guests traveling to Australia’s Mornington Peninsula by plane to attend. She donated money to Greenfleet, a nonprofit that plants trees to offset CO2 emissions, so that she could have a carbon-neutral wedding. She also planted a flowering gum, a native Australian tree, on her wedding day.

“The tree planting ceremony was symbolic of our commitment to holding an environmentally friendly wedding and a small contribution to offsetting the carbon,” Ms. Dreghorn, 30, said.

Ms. Dreghorn, an ethical and sustainable fashion blogger, is one of many people who are defying an industry associated with excess and extravagance.

According to a study by the sustainability consultancy Edge Impact in 2020, the average American wedding emits 57,152 kilograms of CO2. You would need to plant 2,722 trees to offset this.

The study also said that Covid restrictions reduced the average wedding carbon footprint by 93 percent, as travel was limited and couples were forced to have smaller weddings.

“I think the pandemic really showed that we could do weddings differently,” said Bryan Smith, 33, a co-creator of Sustainably Wed, a documentary series about sustainability in the wedding industry. “We can change this industry, and we can still have meaningful celebrations that maybe don’t look like they did 10 or 20 years ago, but they can still be really impactful and special.”

According to Kat Wray, the custodian of Less Stuff, More Meaning, the four biggest environmental impacts of a wedding are air travel, number of guests, meat and imported flowers. A clear solution would be to have a small, local wedding with a vegetarian menu — unless you have a large family or friends across the globe, or need to plan for certain cultural traditions that require meat options.

So, wedding planners and sustainability experts weighed in on five other ideas for an environmentally friendly wedding.

Ms. Wray advises her clients to start their planning process with a wedding mantra.

“What do you want your day to be about?” she said. “Write it down, and keep coming back to that as reminder of why you are doing it in the first place.”

By having a mantra and staying grounded in their priorities, couples can have an intentional and meaningful wedding.

For instance, Ms. Dreghorn wore secondhand shoes and purchased vintage plates from antique stores to help offset the environmental impact of her guests’ flight to the event in Australia.

“Weddings are an avenue for joyful activism,” Ms. Wray said. “It’s a way to embed your values, push back against cultural expectations and use consumer power to plan a love filled event.”

Working with local vendors significantly reduces the environmental impact from long-distance transportation, shipping and storage.

Michelle Miles, the founder of the Sustainable Wedding Alliance, suggests collaborating with a community of local vendors that values sustainability.

Local businesses are also more flexible, with the ability to keep up with requests and logistical dilemmas, Ms. Miles said. She recommends asking businesses questions about their sustainability policies, including what happens with waste, if they have compost bins and whether they’ve removed single-use plastic from their operations.

Gwenda Jeffs, the owner of Green Union, an ethical wedding blog based in Britain, said to start by deciding on the venue.

“If you’ve chosen a sustainable venue that does all the necessary with energy, water, recycling, renewables, they may even have recommended suppliers,” she said, including caterers, florists, photographers and stylists. “It’s almost a one-stop shop.”

The majority of wedding décor — including balloons, lighting and cake stands — can be rented, ensuring zero waste and a lower price point.

Finding a venue that comes with the rentals and décor is a helpful hack. Similarly, vendors can have in-house items that they would then be able to reuse for future events.

“We try to encourage couples to think about the life cycle of a product,” Ms. Miles said. “So, for example, if you are ordering table runners or napkins, can they be hired rather than purchased?”

This includes renting the wedding outfit as well as renting plants as décor or statement pieces. That brings us to our next category.

“Some people get lulled into that false sense of security thinking, ‘Oh, well, flowers are natural. It’s not really waste,’” said Ms. Jeffs, who has been a wedding florist for 10 years. But flowers have often been imported from countries with climates that are favorable for growth, or they have been forced to grow out of season and consequently use a large amount of energy.

Working with local florists to use seasonal flowers and foliage will significantly reduce a wedding’s carbon footprint. Ms. Jeffs also suggests “relinquishing the stranglehold of specific flower types and colors” and giving florists some free range so that they could work with blooms that are naturally in season.

“Give them parameters,” she said. “Maybe you’d say ‘the cooler end of the spectrum’ or ‘the warmer end of the spectrum’ or ‘neutrals.’ Whatever it may be, give them flexibility to really get the best of what’s around at that time.”

Couples can rent items from florists and work with them to have reusable arrangements that serve more than one function, such as aisle markers that can be used as table centers or a ceremony backdrop that can be used as a photo booth. The arrangements can be used after the wedding and be given to guests to take home as party favors.

At the end of the event, leftovers can be donated to charities and organizations. Anything else can be composted.

An alternative to floral arrangements are potted plants. For a tropical vibe, rent large palms and tropical trees. And for a boho wedding, yucca canes, cactuses and succulents fit the theme. Guests can take succulents and potted plants home after the wedding.

Quantities of food should be based on R.S.V.P.s, said Rosa Rolle, an expert on food loss and waste at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. She recommends a seasonal menu built with local ingredients and the use of reusable plates and dishes. She also suggests plated dishes, which tend to generate less waste than a buffet.

When there is leftover food, she recommends offering to-go containers made with biodegradable materials for guests to bring food home. In addition, N.G.O.s and charities like Rescuing Leftover Cuisine pick up leftover food from weddings and events and distribute them, though there are local laws for food donation safety requirements.

“Look up the laws, or ask your caterer what the laws are around donating food after the wedding,” Chelsea Kanstrup, 33, a co-creator of Sustainably Wed, said. “You can go very quickly from food waste, which can be a pretty negative thing, to donating meals to people who need them in your community.”

Ultimately, minimizing waste on your wedding day requires thought and consideration.

“It’s not rocket science — that’s the beauty of it,” Ms. Rolle said. “Simple behavioral changes can make an incremental difference.”