It’s Possible to Have a Sustainable Wedding — I Know, I Did It
Posted on October 04 2018
For the Sustainable, Eco-friendly Wedding— Here’s a Proven Plan
Many of the choices we make every day — from the clothes we wear to the food we eat — are about expressing what we value. When it comes to getting married, the desire to send a message about what’s important to you is multiplied by, well, about 1000. Given how eco-conscious I try to be in my everyday life, I wanted my wedding to represent not only my taste, but also my commitment to conservation and sustainability — which is no small task. And I know I’m not alone.
Since getting married in March and posting pictures, I’ve heard from many people who also want to plan sustainable weddings that they can feel great about. Your special day doesn’t have to be a day of waste and expense. Mike and I made sure ours wasn’t and had fun taking on the challenge.
My goal with this piece is to make hosting your own wedding easy by breaking down what’s needed for an eco-friendly celebration, and how I navigated each piece so that you don’t have to start from scratch.
The wedding dress industry counts on the fact that most gowns are worn only once and rarely repurposed. For this reason, most dresses made in the last 20 to 30 years are impossible to clean or repair once damaged. They’re mass produced in developing nations using the most caustic materials and processes possible. So yes, you can go to cost-efficient bridal shops and pay a reasonable amount for a dress. Supposedly there are also stores that will rent wedding dresses, however I was not able to find one...they claim to rent but only seemed to have dresses for sale. The other option is to go to a designer and buy a dress that is extremely expensive and more than likely also made in the same way as the cheaper alternative. Far too few brides know that’s the case.
It’s easy to get intimidated by the sheer volume of options. Taking a sustainable approach helps you narrow this down to find a dress that perfectly and genuinely fits who you are.
A third option is to have a dress made or have a vintage dress altered. In order to alter a used dress, you’ll need to find one that made it safely through a previous wedding reception without a tear or wine stains — and that was kept in a safe, dry place. Additionally, as brides have been getting taller and gradually more athletic over the generations, you’ll be lucky to find a dress with enough fabric to alter. I found a dress that was in decent enough shape, but unfortunately it did not have enough fabric in it to accommodate the dress we were making.
Second hand dress with not enough fabric
In my case, my mother had carefully preserved her dress so that her daughters could wear it. Unfortunately, I’m about 3 inches taller than my mother and proportionally larger in all dimensions. This would not have posed a problem had her dress been made with a large skirt, but her dress was a beautiful 60s, A-line style.
My mom inspires me everyday!
My hope was to be able to take just a piece of her dress to create at least some part of mine. Unfortunately, she being of mostly German descent and me having pulled some of my father’s olive skin tone, I needed to wear a white dress and hers was ivory. Again, I needed to compromise, but didn’t have to give up on the values that would make this dress special to me. I decided to find a beautiful dress that I could dissect and turn into the dress of my dreams.
I found an amazingly talented dress maker named Aleksandra Sotelo who was willing to embark on this journey with me and we were off! I spent months going to vintage stores and contacting collectors, but the wedding date was looming closer and I was nowhere near to finding a dress that met any of my requirements. This led me down the path of vintage fabric. I knew that buying new fabric made from non-sustainable materials or practices was no better than buying a new dress. People don’t often think of vintage fabric, but there are a wealth of options when you look into it.
I looked online and on Etsy found a woman selling beautiful vintage silk she had bought at an estate sale. I ordered it immediately, and when it arrived, I discovered that it was indeed beautiful but unfortunately a shade of ivory that would make me look like I had dysentery. So, the hunt continued.
Two years prior to my engagement, my grandmother — who had impeccable taste and kept all of her things in pristine shape — had passed away. I remembered that I had a number of her items and thought I would have a look to see if any of her carefully curated treasures might work for a wedding dress.
With a pile of beautiful fabrics; old tablecloths, lace doilies, sheets and other decorative items, I went to my dressmaker to see what she thought might work. She was instantly enamored with a very long white table cloth that my grandmother had bought in Spain years ago.
There were some minor stains, but Aleksandra (again, my hero) thought she might be able to remove them. I anxiously waited to hear from her, and sure enough she’d been able to completely remove the stains (so don’t give up!). Conveniently, the cloth was made in the shape of a very long oval, which would work perfectly to create a round full skirt. I had hoped to have a somewhat short dress with a full skirt, so I could move easily and get my dance on. This was a match made in heaven.
The fabric, was somewhat sheer and needed a solid liner for modesty and structure. Aleksandra carefully instructed me in what types of fabric would work best and I went to task looking for sustainable options. I first searched again for repurposed and unusual sources; sheets, dress liners, table cloths — but nothing fit both the color and fabric needs.
Finally, I moved on to search for new fabrics that were made from sustainable materials. I went to fabric stores all over the city (and the internet), and found a white 50% recycled polyester 50% organic cotton blend at a great place called Discount Fabrics SF. It was heavy and wide and seemed perfect.
We did our best to make all aspects of the dress as sustainable as possible. The bones were made from recyclable steel (a company called Item4Ever). The breast cups were pulled from a discarded bra
We were able to use pieces of the fabric as straps. With a complicated invention of hooks and loops, the dress could be worn strapless, as a halter or with a full set of straps. Even the adornments for the dress and my hair were made from scraps of the same table- cloth — a touchstone from my family history to carry with me.
Hair accessories made from dress scraps
In order to have a full skirt with the desired vintage look, I needed to find a large petticoat. I searched again in vintage and second-hand stores , but nothing was quite the right color or fit. In the end, I found a lovely family-owned company that makes beautiful hand-sewn petticoats in Tennessee (Malco Modes). We decided that at least this way we would know the origins of the materials. Plus, by not attaching the petticoats to the dress, they could be worn again to spice up other dresses or repurposed for something else entirely (a costume for Burning Man?).
Additional items: the veil was borrowed from a dear friend (her daughter’s first communion veil), and the shoes were long-time residents of my closet bought second-hand. The fur jacket I wore was given to me by my grandmother and had belonged to her best friend. My purse was a vintage beaded clutch that I have had for 15 years.
My friend's daughter at her first communion wearing the veil I borrowed
A beautiful vintage fur handed down by my grandmother's best friend
The ribbon liner in the dress was a scrap from Aleksandra’s collection of dress remnants. She is incredible at reusing and repurposing everything she can. Even the sample dress that she made for me to get my sizing correct was made from scraps of others she has used.
Ultimately, we learned that making a dress from materials not designed for wedding dresses can be an arduous process. My hope in writing this article is to share great and unusual leads that will get you started and make it easier to create a beautiful sustainable wedding dress from repurposed materials. This dream is within reach for you if you plan ahead.
The Groom’s Attire for an Eco-friendly Wedding
Our hope had been to find a late '60s vintage suit that would fit the part and Mike’s personality. Unfortunately, finding matching tops and bottoms on vintage suits is not easy. We were able to find a great tuxedo top but no matching pants — either that or pants that fit in the length but not in the waist. We thought the next best option would be to buy a new suit that he could at least wear again. Unfortunately, any tuxedos that were affordable were made of cheap polyester (a very unsustainable fabric) and the cut of the jacket was not right for Mike’s frame.
Ill fitting cheap suit.
We tried local tuxedo rental shops, but found that the suits were poor quality and not the right fit; tall and slim is not the preponderant demographic and cinching an over sized pant waist looked bunchy.
Cheap tux rental
We were close to giving up. When a friend recommended an online rental service, we were initially suspicious because of the local rental fit problems. But this service, The Black Tux, actually has locations across the country where you can try on the suits before you order them. Once you’re happy with the cut and fit, you order the suit and all the accessories. Then it arrives perfectly-timed two weeks before your day, so you can try it on and verify that it fits. We went to the location in downtown SF and were pleased with the quality of the suits and the helpful staff. Even if you don’t have a location near you, we were impressed with the online experience and would confidently recommend them.
The Black Tux fitting location in SF
The suit for Mike was beautifully made of natural fibers (wool and cotton). By renting then reusing them, we were producing much less waste. We decided to purchase a vintage bow tie and upcycled circuit board cuff links on Etsy. This perfected the look. We also chose not to require a wedding party to wear matching suits thus saving our friends time and money.
I definitely wanted to be surrounded by live greenery at my wedding, but I wanted to be careful about waste and needless destruction. The prospect of growing plants for the sole purpose of cutting them for a couple days' use, depressed me. Of course, flowers look and smell beautiful, but weddings tend to go needlessly overboard in this department. It seems a shame to have so many beautiful flowers cut and placed in one space for such a short period of time. (To be fair, there are organizations employing more sustainable methods but I did not have a budget for that.)
On top of that, the reality of transportation for a large quantity of flowers makes repurposing them difficult. Most guests won’t take them home and the bride and groom are often traveling directly after the event. On the other hand, plants and nature are an important part of who I am and who many of you are. They bring a warmth and sensation of new beginnings. Given all this, I decided that I wanted to use plants that could be replanted after the event — or cuttings that actually benefited the host plants.
We’re fortunate to have a backyard where we live in San Francisco, full of all varieties of plants. But honestly, even if we didn’t, we could have found a friend who did, or gone to a nursery.
We wanted to be non-obvious about the types of greenery one might see at a wedding and settled on non-flowering plants. This added a touch of uniqueness to the occasion in an area where flowers are so often the default.
We had let our succulents overgrow in our San Francisco garden in the weeks leading up to the wedding. The morning of the event, my friends and I cut beautiful bunches of succulents that not only needed pruning but also could be replanted after the event.
Decorative glass bowls made it easy to dress up these cuttings as centerpieces on tables and scattered around the venue...simple, clean and elegant..
We found used glassware at second hand-stores and from friends, As it turned out, many of our friends were honored and excited to have a piece from their home play a role on our special day.
In addition, my neighbor had a eucalyptus tree that was overdue for pruning, so we were able to cut branches to add to the wedding arch.
Finally, my dear friend purchased a number of flowers from a farmer’s market the day before the wedding and created both a bridal bouquet and a boutonniere.
Often for weddings the bride and groom choose a location that regularly hosts that type of event and they have access to reusable decorations. Another option is to DIY it. We had chosen The Chapel, a San Francisco gem of a music venue in a converted mortuary. Atypical sounding, I realize, but the space is beautiful, the restaurant and bar are fantastic, and it meant something to us to get married somewhere very authentic to our community of friends. Needless to say, they didn’t have a wide selection of wedding decorations for us to choose from.
Planning our decor gave us a chance to be creative and resourceful. The default option for many folks in this situation is to order from Amazon. This is an inexpensive and quick solution, but means that the products received are generally made in developing countries in factories that mistreat their workers and the environment. Additionally, most of what you buy, because it’s inexpensive, can only be used once and ends up on the curb in the following days.
We instead took to Craigslist and found that a surprising number of people were selling their previously used wedding decorations at reasonable prices. This option turned out to not only be useful but inspiring — giving us ideas about how to decorate while also providing affordable and unique options. We also visited local thrift stores and discovered a number of gems along the way. For example, we found some vintage suitcases to display mementos from our time together. We also printed out some pictures, which we hung across the display.
This worked for both the rehearsal dinner and the wedding night itself. We even created a wedding logo that was projected on the wall. In the end, the only decorations that we bought new were fairy lights and a metal frame for the wedding arch. After our day, we were able to sell it all to another couple looking for affordable and sustainable options for their wedding. For a final touch, we arrived in style to our wedding in the vintage 1965 Malibu of our friend (and local painter), Jesus, thus saving the extra wasted gas of a rental car from across town.
One major expense and struggle for couples prepping for their wedding is the invitations. There’s a ton of pressure to send something memorable, beautiful, unique — which often requires multiple sheets of fancy paper and stamps and mailing back and forth. We wanted to cut down on the paper waste (typically people let you know they are coming by phone or email anyway) — not to mention the time and logistics this would take. So we chose to use a paperless invitation service, Paperless Post, for both the Save-the-Dates and the invitations. This was great because it also tracked the RSVPs and food choices. Plus, with a range of design options, they ended up being beautiful and reaching far more people than we had physical addresses for.
We also used a Wedding Website and a Facebook page to provide information and updates. As technology improves for wedding planning and invites, we think physical paper will and should become a formality that brides and grooms can forgo. (Though, we did send out paper invitations to the grandparents.)
Another way to cut down on waste was creating menu options that specifically cater to guests and avoid plates of food going to waste. We created a very detailed list of food options including: gluten free, vegan, vegetarian, lactose free and others. I find it so frustrating at weddings when each guest is given a plate of food that they barely touch, and then it is all thrown away. We made sure to offer enough time to eat and we presented food family style. This way, guests who did not have much appetite could take what they wanted and those with a huge appetite (my 6’8” nephew, brothers, and father for instance) could eat as much as they liked.
Just a few of the big eaters at our wedding who appreciated portions of their own choosing.
We accomplished this by asking those who had food restrictions to advise us in advance (through our online RSVP system). Only those guests were given place cards with specific food portions. We also calculated meal sizes for children, so as not to over prepare. The remaining guests were fed family style and were able to eat as much as they liked.
Also, very important to the plan was to have a solution for the leftovers. We asked one of our friends in advance to serve as point person for making sure anything left over at the end of the night would go to people who would use it. He was able to prepare a cooler beforehand with ice in it. After the event, the extra food was packaged in boxes and he brought it home with him. Mike and I also had fantastic meals for a week after the wedding! We chose local seasonal foods like kale and sustainably harvested fish. The only place where we did not offer a very sustainable option was in the red meat selected. I am sorry to report that we did offer steak which was neither sustainable nor from a local farm. (As you know when it comes to weddings, you can’t be perfect and can only try your best — compromising where you have to and not being too hard on yourself is important.)
Thanks for sharing my special day with me in text and photos. As soon as I began receiving questions about how we were able to make so much of our wedding align with our commitment to the environment, I knew it was worth sharing the tactics and steps we discovered along the way. After all, I know I would have really appreciated a blueprint when we got started with our wedding planning. I hope this gives you a starting place to make your day everything you want it to be. As a quick summary, here are the key tips and tricks we highly recommend:
- Vintage fabric is a thing. Look into it. There are beautiful options out there waiting to be found.
- Don’t count out other sources of fabric like family heirlooms, table cloths, etc. They can be beautifully repurposed with the right help.
- Fire up your network of friends and family to see what you can borrow. Not only is it less wasteful, but you involve people who love you in your significant event. Remember, this can include everything from earrings to cars to vases.
- Don’t just default to flowers. Find greenery that will live on past the event and remind people of you every time they look at it. Someone you know has a backyard that needs pruning.
- Thrift stores are your friend. With some time invested in hunting, you can find gorgeous glassware and decorative pieces that will be unique and memorable to you and as an added benefit, many thrift stores are nonprofits donating to a good cause.
- Online services can take the paperwork and hassle out of invites, RSVPs, maps, and hotel and venue information. Simplify and save trees.
- Get an accurate estimate on the food you’ll need and serve family style to help everyone get exactly the amount they want. Don’t make vegan and gluten-free friends watch their plates go to waste, figure out who they are and how you can serve them beforehand.
- Anoint a friend “food waste captain” so they can find a great home for the yummy leftovers.
- Don’t settle. But don’t beat yourself up if you have to compromise either. I know from experience, your effort to create a wedding that reflects your values will inspire many others to think about doing the same.
- It is a common myth that a sustainable wedding is expensive. Many of these tips will actually save you money.
- I'd love to hear about your sustainable wedding. Feel free to leave comments and pictures to share!
Photo Credit: Kelly Nicolaisen