Getting married sustainably: 5 tips on how to plan an eco-friendly wedding on a budget

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Getting married sustainably: 5 tips on how to plan an eco-friendly wedding on a budget

Last year, my husband and I got married over the beautiful summer solstice weekend. As nature lovers and environmentalists, we were conscious of how wasteful weddings can be and wanted to make our big day as sustainable as possible. Thankfully, we found lots of ways to minimise our impact, without making any compromises or breaking the bank.

As a way to celebrate our first anniversary, and to help those that might be seeking advice, I’ve pulled together a simple guide on how to create an eco-friendly wedding, based on our personal experiences and key learnings:

1. It all starts with the venue

The venue you choose will have a direct impact on the sustainability of your wedding. There are two main types of venues: DIY and what I call ‘standard’. DIY options allow you the freedom to make your own choices, based on both your values and budget. Meanwhile the more standard venues give you less autonomy – typically offering a set drop-down menu of options and a preferred supplier list to choose from. If you’re thinking of booking a venue that falls into the latter category, ask for information on its environmental policies and resources, and that of its suppliers. Also, it can’t hurt to find out how flexible it would be in accommodating your preferences. 

If you are lucky enough to find a venue that allows you to source your own suppliers, try to find local, independent businesses that are committed to sourcing their products responsibly and that don’t cost the earth. 

Personal experience:

To have as much flexibility and control over our choices as possible, and to minimise cost, we decided that a DIY venue would be right for us. When researching options online, I stumbled across The Cowshed at Woodhall farm. The venue was reasonably priced compared with other DIY options we had seen, and based in the rural town of Codsall, Staffordshire – ideally situated in between many of our friends and family, with good public transport links. The Cowshed is a charming, authentic barn-like building with an adjacent space that can be used for an indoor ceremony and/or a bar with music and dancing. The venue hire also includes a lovely woodland-esque outdoor area, including ‘Grandma’s island’ – a beautiful ceremony space surrounded by water, with a canopy of trees and wooden log seats for guests.

Grandma’s Island, The Cowshed

Before booking, we met one of the owners, Lucy, to find out more about the venue and our options. The whole experience was a breath of fresh air. The Cowshed is truly a wonderful blank canvas and there are no restrictions in terms of choosing your own suppliers. Lucy advised us that we could decorate however we liked and she gave us the names of local suppliers that previous guests had booked and recommended to her – none of which she has any affiliation with. We loved the venue because it had a unique setting, helpful owners, and was available for three days’ hire – allowing us to set up and tidy away a day before and after the wedding. And ultimately, by booking The Cowshed, we knew we could be as eco-friendly as possible and make our big day truly ours.

2. Opt for a plant-based / vegetarian menu

If having a sustainable wedding is really important to you, then this is a must. You don’t have to look far to discover the reasons why reducing meat consumption is good for the environment (and let’s not forget the health benefits and animal welfare considerations). Opting for more plant-based foods can significantly reduce water usage, methane production, land use and greenhouse gas emissions. If you want to read up on more reasons to go meat-free, check out this new article by The Guardian’s Environment editor, Damian Carrington, for some interesting arguments. 

If you are worrying about what your guests will think (you know, great uncle Bob that only eats bacon or steak), then don’t. Choosing a 100% plant-based or vegetarian menu is no longer as controversial as it used to be, and your guests should respect your decision – it’s your day after all! Also, remember that it doesn’t in any way mean compromising on taste. Once snubbed as boring ‘rabbit food’, a decade ago you wouldn’t find a decent veggie or vegan option at any social occasion. Thankfully nowadays there are plenty of forward-thinking caterers that are both equipped and willing to provide delicious vegetarian or plant-based options that will leave even the most avid meat eaters wanting more. 

An additional bonus for going ‘zero meat’ on your wedding day is that the bills are often a lot less eye watering. Depending on the caterer, you could potentially halve the cost you would spend on a meat-based menu, all while giving old uncle Bob a new taste sensation and being kinder to the planet. 

Personal experience:

While researching local caterers, we came across Medicine Bakery + Deli, which looked perfect.  An artisan bakery, cafe and gallery that also caters for events, Medicine offers an incredible vegetarian menu *see below* (no boring goat’s cheese tart today, thank you), and also caters for vegan diets. We discovered that they had catered for a few weddings at The Cowshed, had been highly praised, and knew the premises really well (we found that this was quite an important benefit, as it meant they already knew how to operate in the kitchen space). We reached out to Francesca at Medicine, who gave us a tasty range of vegetarian options to sample, and we chose a broad selection to suit all tastes. We were also assured that any excess food would feed staff members or go to good causes, including soup kitchens (so no food waste). 

Before the feast

*There were so many delectable sharing dishes to enjoy. Here are a few of our favourites from the day: filo spinach and feta spanakopita (a nod to my Greek heritage), pan fried halloumi, fig and rocket salad with a pistachio, raspberry and honey dressing, fiery fine beans with roasted tomato on the vine, rose harissa and rose water, ‘‘wedding rice’ – basmati with cinnamon, cranberry, barberry orange peel and onion, seared broccoli, chilli and garlic salad with edible flowers, sweet and sour celeriac and swede salad, roast beetroot with labneh and dill, garlic roasted potatoes, the list goes on, but you get the dreamy picture. Everyone, meat eaters and vegetarians alike, absolutely LOVED the food – it’s something we still get complimented on to this day.

3. Borrow, hire and buy second-hand

One of the best ways to have an eco-friendly and low-waste wedding is to borrow what you need from friends and family, hire equipment that you can return, and only buy what you will reuse or pass on to someone else. Not only do you avoid buying expensive, unrecyclable things that you will only use for one day, you will save things going into landfill. Create a wish-list of essentials and ideal items that will achieve the feel you want, and don’t be shy in asking your nearest and dearest or even friends of friends. You can also ask your venue for recommendations on how to source the materials you need nearby (they will likely have a network of contacts you can hire from) or browse websites like freecycle and visit charity shops to find pre-loved items that you can give a new lease of life to. 

The same can be said for wedding attire. Wedding dresses, suits, bridesmaids dresses can all be sourced more ethically and with the environment in mind. All of us have subconsciously, at one time or another, listened to the lies that the highly unsustainable fast fashion industry tell us. We have become programmed to think we need to buy everything brand-new, that second hand items are undesirable, and that simply isn’t the case. There are so many stunning pre-loved modern or vintage outfits available that you can purchase or hire for your big day. 

Personal experience:

By asking our friends and family, we were able to borrow a great variety of items that made our day special. They allowed us to give the space a really personal touch, minimise waste and save ourselves a small fortune. Borrowed items included: festoon lighting, fairy lights, hessian sacks (to cover hay bale seating), bunting, artificial hops and flowers, vases, candle holders, outdoor games, like giant jenga, a tug of war rope and Kubb (a real favourite of the day), an amp and speakers to play our wedding playlist in the evening, and a table for flowers.

Meanwhile, we managed to hire: 30 hay bales (for use as outdoor seating) from the farmer next door to the venue, chairs, cutlery and glasses from a local supplier, and fire pits (for outdoor evening ambience). One of our favourite hire items was a stretch tent from Creative Tents. The guys at Creative Tents were based nearby, affordable and were really great to work with; punctual, friendly, and efficient in setting up and taking down the tent. We originally hired the tent to shelter our band and guests in case of rain, but thankfully the sun shone down gloriously all day and it was used for shade instead! We also sourced a range of pre-loved / second hand items from charity shops and websites, including two barrels for use as outdoor tables, blankets to keep people warm in the evening, a wooden basket to hold the confetti flower petals and glass jugs for flowers.

A lovely scene

What about the dress? Well, for starters I did go and try on some obscenely expensive dresses in fancy boutiques with friends and family, I mean who doesn’t? It’s a lovely experience and so much fun – it also helps you understand what sort of style you like and suit. But deep down I wanted to find a more eco-friendly and affordable dress that I could purchase with a clear conscience. While looking for the right gown, a friend recommended an independently run wedding dress business with a twist. The Bridal Barn in Codsall offers brides a selection of budget-friendly dresses that are no longer wanted by retailers, either due to discontinuation of the dresses, cancelled orders or liquidated stock. Dresses that would have otherwise been discarded and probably gone into landfill. I visited the owner, Jane, with my mum, also Jane, and together we found ‘the one’. I then used a recommended, locally based seamstress to alter it, to support local business rather than sending it to an expensive franchise.

The dress

4. Upcycle, get crafty and call on wider skills

Similarly to borrowing and hiring items, you can minimise waste and expenditure by getting creative and recognising the talents of your friends and family. Create a list of what you are hoping to have during your big day and have a good think about who can help. You will be surprised by how many varied skills you have in your inner circle and wider network. Whether you know a seamstress, a graphic designer, an artist, a photographer or videographer, a calligrapher, a baker, a woodworker or a musician – it is worth asking people you know and trust to get involved, so you don’t buy unnecessary, single-use items or invite suppliers to travel long distances (and thereby reduce the carbon footprint of your wedding). Most friends won’t feel put out, but flattered, to be asked – as long as you are mindful of their time, show gratitude and don’t expect them to incur any expenses. 

Personal experience:

We are really fortunate to have lots of helpful and talented friends and family members, all of which were more than happy to get stuck in. By getting them on board, our wedding felt much more personal and interconnected. Everyone felt involved and the collaborative spirit really shone through on the day. Our friends and family helped design our wedding invitations, set up and decorated the venue the day before, created signs, made ivy wreaths using garden ivy, made bridesmaid bouquets and floral displays with responsibly sourced flowers and twine, hand wrote table cards using recycled and recyclable paper, played music using their own instruments, took wonderful photos throughout the day, baked cakes to share with everyone, and so much more. We were overwhelmed with everyone’s generosity.

We also put our own creativity and craftsmanship to the test by making our running order and welcome sign from unwanted wooden pallets, and upcycling old beer cans to make plant pots for cacti (which we took home with us). For our favours, which are notoriously wasteful, we had traditional Greek wedding favours – bombonieres (almond flavoured sweet treats) in small, reusable silk bags – gifted to us by my dad. By opting for small edible favours over plastic or novelty-based favours that come in wasteful packaging, you are less likely to create waste.

5. Support a cause

While weddings are known for being costly, there are creative and low cost or free ways to give back to the community or the environment at your wedding. This is probably more doable if you are opting for a DIY venue that allows you the freedom to put your own rules in place. Think about what matters to you and then see how you can potentially support it as a by product of your wedding. 

Personal experience

We used a charity bar to support the environment.

We were luckily able to stock our own bar at The Cowshed, which meant that we were able to purchase our own alcohol and avoid the typical corkage fee you see at most venues. We also brewed a batch of our own beer. We didn’t charge guests for bubbly or wine during the day (that was on us), and in the evening we were able to provide really low-priced drinks made from the alcohol we bought to stock the bar. Meanwhile, we stated that the home brew was donation-based. We covered our bought-in spends from the takings on the alcohol we had stocked, but any profit made from the sales, and any donations received for the home brew, was donated to our chosen charity: Trees for Life. Everyone loved the idea – they got super cheap drinks, all while donating to a good cause. We managed to raise enough money to plant a grove of 35 trees in the Scottish Highlands, where they will create homes for wildlife and forests. It’s a special place we can visit in the future, maybe we’ll go there to celebrate our golden wedding anniversary 😉

We are both so glad we were mindful about the footprint of our wedding; it really made a difference to the overall feel of the day, and we were so happy in the knowledge that we had created a wonderful event without harming the planet or our pockets. 

If you’d like any more advice on how to organise an eco-friendly wedding, get in touch. Or for more sustainable tips, check out 15 ways to become more sustainable in 2020.

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