A Step-By-Step Guide To Planning A Simple, Sustainable Wedding

Going green on the big day? Here's everything you need to keep in mind while wedding planning.

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You recycle and compost. You keep A/C use to a minimum and barely drive. You’re a sustainable kind of woman—but now you’re wedding planning. (Congrats, by the way!) You imagine a celebration with zero paper goods, reclaimed wood tables, a sustainable dress, herb centerpieces plucked from your garden, locally grown flowers…maybe something out in the woods? But how do you honor your environmental ideals while wedding planning—especially if you want a big one? Sustainability can mean a lot of things in the real world,” says Sasha Pollock, a climate policy consultant in Portland who had an eco-friendly wedding. “You have to consider it on a financial and personal level, too. How are we being environmentally sustainable while not making ourselves crazy and not spending a ridiculous amount of money?” Her biggest wedding planning advice? Eliminate things that don’t matter to you. “Having a bunch of lavish flowers wasn’t a big deal for me. Neither was having a huge group of people who are all wearing the same dress, but having delicious food and really good drinks was a big deal, so that’s what we focused on financially.” Kelsey Motes-Conners, a wedding designer and the founder and owner of Field: A Wedding Design Studio in Montana, agrees. She advises couples to work with one guiding principle: Decide what is really of value to you. If you’re committed to a sustainable, eco-friendly wedding, wonderful! This might mean choosing a location that doesn’t force every person you know to fly 1,000 miles across the country; it might mean choosing locally sourced organic food that then gets donated to a homeless shelter; it might mean zero paper. Unless you have an unlimited budget, you’ll have to make choices about where you want to put the bulk of your energy and finances, so sitting down and having numerous heart-to-hearts with your beloved (and perhaps a wedding planner!) will really help guide your choices.

Wedding Planning Step 1: Getting Started

If you want a giant guest list and party and have the means for it, go ahead, but there’s no need to go into massive debt while wedding planning.

Set a budget.

“One of the things that’s really difficult about setting a wedding budget is that people generally haven’t planned a wedding before,” explains Motes-Conners. It is not uncommon to find that the photographer who did your fantastic family portraits for a totally affordable price charges way more for wedding photography. Motes-Conners says there are two ways to work within a budget while wedding planning, and only one is really effective: “Some people come to me before they’ve planned anything and say, ‘My budget is $20K.’ We can work within those parameters! But some fall in love with a space or launch into plans and book a venue before projecting all vendor costs.” What happens then? Often there isn’t enough money left for…food. This is a particularly important part of sustainable wedding planning—some things will cost more (like food), but you might be able to save a bunch on other things (like going paperless or favor-less). Pro Tip: If you know you want to work with a wedding planner, book her first, and have a transparent conversation about your vision, your budget, and what planning services will cost. Yes, this is an additional fee, but it might come out in the wash because of all the insider knowledge and the work they will take off your plate: “Planners have the best pulse on what venues and vendors will cost in their region.” Don’t want a wedding planning expert by your side? That’s fine, but downloading a wedding planning calculator from your favorite wedding planning website might not be of much use. “Prices vary from place to place and venue to venue, so you need to get actual costs associated with particular vendors to set your budget.” Bonus Pro Tip:Your sanity is part of sustainability,” Pollock says. “If you lose it, it’s all for nothing.” Throughout the odyssey that is wedding planning, keep the marriage in mind, instead of laser-focusing on every small detail.

Use an app.

Wedding planning involves a lot of moving parts, so keeping all the information in one place (especially if you don’t have a planner) is key. Motes-Conners recommends Aisle Planner. She also suggests using websites that are local to your area instead of a giant well-known website, which are straight-down-the-rabbit hole fun. Not only will the finances be more accurate, but the advertisers on the site will probably also be local.

Create a wedding website.

This is an easy-as-pie way to keep people in the loop without having to send a gazillion follow-up emails or using a smidge of paper! (More on that later.) SquareSpace has a lovely template. Zola also provides clear, functional designs. And, of course, there are always the experts at The Knot!

Don’t forget about your mental health.

Has anyone told you wedding planning is stressful? Kidding! Everyone knows this! A lot of the stress comes from—you guessed it—finances, and it can drive you to the brink. “The question of who is going to pay for what is more fluid now than it was 50 years ago,” Motes-Conners explains, “so often it comes with a different set of expectations.” In other words, when the father of the bride once paid for the whole thing, he had a lot of say. No more. Pro Tip: It’s important to be clear about why you’re making these kinds of wedding planning choices—with yourself, with your partner, and with those contributing financially, especially if being sustainable is your top wedding planning priority. “I always tell my clients to ask themselves, Why? Why this wedding for you?” This helps when you feel like you have to justify certain costs and decisions to those who might be helping you foot the bill. You want to be able to go to your parents, in-laws, or grandparents and say, This is why we’re doing it this way, This is what’s meaningful to us, This is what we want our day to be about. “That can soften the blow when your mom wants you to have four-tier lemon cake and you want a raspberry tart made by your best friend,” Motes-Conners explains. “You can frame it in larger context of what’s meaningful to you.”

Wedding Planning Step 2: Picking Your Vibe and Vendors

Even your venue will affect how environmentally friendly your wedding is. From multiple vendors coming to set up in the hours or even days ahead to guests who might be traveling across town or across country, all of it has an environmental impact.

Picking the Location

“Consider the guests’ air and car travel,” Motes-Conners says. “What might that carbon footprint look like?” It’s lovely to plan a low-key wedding with recycled paper, organic food, and few guests in the Bahamas, but what kind of environmental cost will it be for everyone to fly there? Is there a more central place that would be more environmentally responsible? Then think about what the venue will require. Heating and cooling costs might come to around the same amount—a wedding in New York City in July or in January might amount to the same fees in A/C or heating bills!—but planning an outdoor wedding at least saves you some of that environmental impact. That said, it’s not that simple. If you have a simple backyard wedding, you may not be heating an entire hall (hooray!), but you might be throwing away hundreds of paper plates, napkins, and even more plastic utensils and cups. You’ll have to weigh the cost and ease of using disposable supplies versus glass and china and choose the option that makes the most sense to you. Pro Tip: In contemplating a venue, you want to consider where your guests will be staying. Can they stay on site or nearby to avoid driving to and from venue? Some weddings—at, say, a resort or a summer camp—are set up in such a way that most (if not all) guests stay on the premises. This obviously cuts down a lot on travel time and on fossil fuels!

Picking the Caterer

You want the food to be good. For a lot of couples, this is a non-negotiable, and other areas can be cut back on to grow the food budget. But there are other food requirements to consider when it comes to eco-friendly wedding planning. You can work with a caterer who sources locally and organically and who only uses produce that’s in season. A great eco-friendly caterer will help you shape a menu that’s seasonal to your chosen location. “These days, a lot of caterers are working with local farms and ranches and do a good job of focusing on more sustainable agriculture,” Motes-Conners explains. The same goes for local breweries and wineries. “We made sure our caterer used non-disposable plates and glasses and the food was locally sourced,” Pollock says. “In some people’s minds, having a vegan wedding might be better. We had chicken and bacon, but it was sustainably grown.” Be sure to ask the caterers what they do with the leftover food. Some will donate it to a homeless shelter or local food bank. Some will pack it up and give it to guests to have for lunch the next day. (But again: What is it being packed up in?) Some may even compost it. The bottom line: You don’t want all that extra stuff to end up in a landfill. And if you aren’t into wedding cake? A few options: If you’re going really local, consider ordering various cakes, pies, donuts, or cupcakes from your favorite local bakeries. This way you have a variety! If you have friends who are wonderful bakers, ask if they will bake a cake or pie (or two!) as their gifts (you’ll have to ask a few baking friends). This can be an extremely meaningful contribution to the day.

Picking the Flowers

How “green” you can be when ordering wedding flowers depends entirely on where you are in the country and what time of year it is. If you’re looking at a January wedding in North Dakota, it might sadly be hard to find local flowers! “If you’re in New York, Seattle, or Los Angeles, for example, where you have access to a flower market, it will be much easier to be flexible about flowers in the way that you have to be if you want seasonal, locally grown flowers,” Motes-Conners explains. The seasonality and availability of specific flowers naturally depends on moisture and weather in your area. If you have your heart set on something very specific as you’re wedding planning, your florist’s job is to make that happen, but that might mean flying it in from South America or the Netherlands, which will cast a large carbon footprint. According to Motes-Conners, farmer florists are gaining momentum. In places with longer growing seasons, florists are branching out into farming so they can raise and grow flowers to design with. This is sustainable and gives back to local economy. But it comes with a different mentality—your priority is getting something local rather than the exact bouquet you want.

Wedding Planning Step 3: Choosing Your Crew

It is such an honor to be a bridesmaid—and sometimes, it is a royal pain in the you-know-what. Bridezillas. Money flying out of your bank account. Travel to various ends of the earth. Party after party—all of which you’re supposed to plan! Generally your besties will be honored to help you with every step of wedding planning. They’ll probably look forward to celebrating you, helping you find a dress or pantsuit, and standing by you as you say your vows to your beloved. But not if you ask too much of them. “Be really conscious of your expectations,” Motes-Conners says. “What are you asking people to do? Honoring people you love is wonderful, but there seems to be a trend of really overblown financial expectations—fly to the Bahamas for the bachelorette party, fly to Portland for the bridal shower, fly somewhere else for the wedding.” Most people in their twenties and thirties simply cannot afford this, and even if they can, they might not want to spend their hard-earned cash this way. A few suggestions:

  • Go first tier only. This might sound terrible, but only ask your very, very, very closest friends, and keep the number small—like three or four. Especially if you’ve all known each other for decades, it will likely create an intimate planning atmosphere.
  • Forget about bridesmaids! This might seem radical, but I did it and it was wonderful. This isn’t to say that I didn’t have my sister and best friends supporting me, but I found it too difficult to choose and didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Instead I offered people honors that suited their personalities and skills: Read a poem, Hold a leg of the Chuppah, Read a blessing, Sing a song, Sign the Ketubah. Bonus: No one had to wear matching dresses.
  • Ask your siblings! All of them—brothers and sisters alike. In theory, they will be there anyway, and there’s no logical reason why your sibling of a different gender shouldn’t stand up there with you.
  • Only have a maid/man of honor. One person: your sibling or best friend. Simple.

Pro Tip: Don’t ask friends to be in your wedding party too early, especially if you’ll have a long engagement. What if you have a fight and the relationship deteriorates? You might have to ask her to “resign.” Yikes!

Wedding Planning Step 4: Getting the Gowns (and Tuxes)

This is the part many women love most during wedding planning: buying the dress. The most sustainable thing you can do is wear vintage, but there are plenty of sustainable wedding dress designers, and it’s great to put your money where your ethics lie. First and foremost, you need to choose what’s important to you. For instance, Pollock bought a new wedding dress, but her attendants wore dresses they already owned. Everyone loves a wedding dress. Nobody likes the wedding dress prices. Let’s talk about other options:

  • No carbon footprint option: The most sustainable (and cheapest) option? Let your bridesmaids wear dresses they already own. You can choose a color palette (say, fall colors) and let them go hog wild. If they want to buy something new, great! But it’s their choice.
  • Renting: You can look into renting bridesmaid dresses from Rent the Runway or Vow to be Chic. Dresses that sell for hundreds or thousands can be rented for under $100.
  • Menswear: Men can rent tuxes from Nordstrom’s The Black Tux. No need to spend money and cloth on something you’ll only wear once.
  • Sustainable Materials: More and more dresses are being made from eco-friendly fabrics. A good place to start is Reformation, but H&M now has an eco-conscious wedding collection, too!
  • Go Vintage: Wear something that’s already been worn! Cut up your mom’s old wedding dress, or dive into consignment or vintage stores.

Pro Tip: Beyond renting and buying used, it’s nice to think about small design houses and local designers, ateliers, or shops. In terms of carbon footprint, that probably has a smaller impact than renting because even when you’re renting a wedding dress, it’s probably being shipped back and forth for fittings and for the return, so it’s not as eco-friendly as you might think.

Wedding Planning Step 5: Sharing The News

Invites, RSVP cards, ceremony program, seating chart, menu—how much of this crap do you really need? Especially if you’re thinking about all that paper. As with all things related to wedding planning, focus on your priorities. If you think you don’t need paper, beautiful place cards, or menus printed, don’t do it! Paperless Post has gorgeous invites (and people don’t have to send anything back in the mail!). You can put the seating chart and/or the menu on a big chalkboard. That said, these things can be lovely if the aesthetic is something you’re drawn to, and you can go with 100 percent recycled products. “I’m a printmaker by training,” Motes-Conners says, “so I love to feeling of paper, love printing texture. And by and large, there’s not a giant amount of paper.” Pro Tip: For the love of all things holy, do not include seeds in the invitation (or in anything else). You don’t always know what kinds of seeds you’re getting and whether they will be safe in a different kind of soil. It could be an invasive species not meant to grow there, and actually cause environmental harm!

Wedding Planning Step 6: The Big Day

Putting Your Face On

You made it! The big day is here! After focusing so much on sustainability, don’t forget about what’s going on your face. To keep the theme going, opt for eco-friendly beauty brands that are ethically produced (no animal testing!). We recommend Tarte: Their products are never tested on animals and their expansive vegan-friendly line uses plant-based ingredients chock full of minerals, vitamins, and essential oils for a glow you can feel good about.

Giving Out Favors

The only favors that are universally appreciated? Edible ones! Remember that your guests are often traveling by plane so it’s sort of, let’s say, inconsiderate to give them creams, gels, or liquids—so as nice as it is to get locally sourced honey or maple syrup, you have to think about how they’ll get it home. Edibles (I’m talking cookies, chocolate, tea, or coffee) also don’t leave a lot of plastic behind, and probably won’t end up in the trash. Pollock made wedding crackers—by saving toilet paper rolls for six months! One night she and her fiance had friends over, and in three hours they assembled over 100. Inside they inserted a recipe for old fashioneds—their favorite drink. It took more planning time, but was totally worth it to them.

Wedding Planning Step 7: Finding Your Focus

In the midst of all this wedding planning, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the most important thing: your marriage! For most couples, the wedding planning and the ceremony only marks the beginning of your partnership. “If the idea of having all these people that you love get together and witness the fact that you’re actually getting married is important to you, then it’s worthwhile to invest yourself emotionally—not just financially!— in your wedding,” says Motes-Conners. “Use it as an opportunity to connect with people in your life who mean something to you and your partner, and have it be a galvanizing moment amidst the chaos of all those people in one space. You get to determine how meaningful your wedding is and what it means.” There is something unspeakably powerful about the people you love being there to witness you moving into this next phase of your life and knowing they will be there when things get tough. The onus is on you to set the tone as you’re wedding planning. The guests are making a major investment to celebrate you and it’s vital that you honor their commitment. “Your marriage and wedding are, in most respects, two different things, but where they intersect is up to you.” sustainable wedding guide

Abigail Rasminsky
Abigail Rasminsky has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Cut, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Marie Claire, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her family.

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