For all of the pageantry of many weddings, the most important part is that little two-minute bit you can barely see where the couple exchanges rings, does a secret handshake and passes notes to each other. Or whatever it is they’re doing up there.
It’s one of the most symbolic parts, but it’s also the most important environmentally. The biggest waste at a wedding is the smallest object involved (unless you’ve got some kind of inhuman tree trunk fingers): the ring.
Eco-friendly weddings can make dents in other areas — a reused dress, local flowers, a conscious caterer — but a commercially made ring casts a massive shadow over all of it. A ring mined the standard way generates a ton of waste that will be left in the environment. That’s not a figure of speech — one ton is the low end of estimates. The upper end: 20 tons of waste for a single ring.
That’s because many commercial mines use heap-leaching, where a cyanide solution is dripped onto a pile of gold ore. The gold dissolves into a mixture that’s collected under the ore. The process literally removes the gold from the rock using poison. It couldn’t be more heavy-handed if George Orwell wrote it.
But there’s hope. Eco-conscious couples are steadily getting more and better options for green weddings, from electronic-only invitations to recycled gold to previously owned dresses to farm-to-table venues that grow most of the food they serve.
But if you want to turn your wedding green, you might struggle when it comes to the actual plants. Teresa Henry, owner of florist Boulder Blooms, says brides and grooms can find eco-friendly options for flowers, but only if they don’t cling to the term organic.
“There’s very few organic flowers, nearly zero,” she says, “because to make a flower look really beautiful it takes some bug control.”
Henry says she’s learned that keeping a lid on pesticides means sacrificing appearance.
“I had one person who absolutely insisted on organic flowers. I was able to get them, but they had to be shipped in from South America and the quality wasn’t that great,” she says.
There’s still hope on the floral front, though. Henry points to other areas couples can reduce the carbon footprint of their flowers. One way, she says, is by staying in Colorado.
“The best thing you can do for the environment is to locally source as much as possible,” she says. She notes that Boulder flowers are likely to receive fewer pesticides due to strict regulations. “Also, you cut out transportation. Usually, local does not mean cheaper, but they’re so beautiful.”
Colorado flowers are typically 25 percent more expensive than flowers from out of state, Henry says. But labor costs stay the same, so couples would only pay 5 to 10 percent more for the eco-friendly option.
Another green wedding option is to pick up an item you might find just hanging around in a family closet — when it comes to the dress, the greenest choice is to use a previously worn gown.
Marti Matsch, communications director for zero-waste nonprofit Eco-Cycle, calls the dress a good item for reuse, especially if brides value family tradition.
“For my wedding gown, for example, I took my mom’s dress in to a tailor who modified it for me,” Matsch says in an email. “It was really cool and extra special that way.”
Matsch says she’s aware of a few local companies that will make new dresses that are better for the environment.
“I have a pal who wore a hemp gown she bought in Littleton that was spectacular,” she says.
The nearest store advertising used dresses is Eco Bridal in Denver.
Sara Watts, a jewelry designer at Boulder’s Angie Star Jewelry currently planning her eco-friendly May wedding, says she looked into green designers but didn’t find anything she liked.
“The brands that I know that are marketing themselves as green are few and far between,” she says. “There’s only one I know of, and I didn’t end up finding a dress through that company.”
The dress she chose is “not specifically eco-friendly, but it’s certainly not sweatshop labor material,” she says. The biggest concern with dresses isn’t the impact on the environment, she says, it’s “human rights issues.”
“It’s a different craft,” she says.
“It’s hard to know what you’re buying and what you’re supporting with that decision.”
With rings, though, the emphasis is most certainly on the environmental impact. The best option is to use recycled gold, say pro-environment Boulder jewelers Todd Reed of Todd Reed Jewelry and Angela Olsgard Tiernan of Angie Star. Old rings, necklaces and other jewelry can be melted down and re-forged into new pieces. Both Angie Star and Todd Reed use 100 percent recycled gold and harvest stones from old jewelry to reuse in new pieces.
“In terms of diamonds, we could just keep making beautiful things over and over again,” Reed says. “I think that philosophy is really great.”
These jewelers both say they’re motivated by doing the right thing, but ultimately, Tiernan says, customers’ values are the reason recycled gold is becoming more prevalent.
“I think customers are really driving it. They’re asking for sustainable and recycled,” she says.
But just how many couples seek the eco-friendly option? It depends who you ask. Henry says they’re everywhere.
“We have a lot of experience with [green weddings],” she says. “You have no idea. Because everybody comes in and that’s the first thing they request.”
Reed says more than 85 percent of his wedding customers are looking for sustainability. But Kim Boos, owner and pastry chef at Tee and Cakes, says only about half of the couples she works with mention eco-friendliness.
The vendors say many couples probably aren’t aware that eco-friendly options exist, and if they are, they’re afraid their budgets can’t accommodate the expense.
“Unfortunately, in the wedding world, lots of people are looking to save money. They’re on a budget for sure,” Boos says.
“If they don’t understand why one company costs 10 percent more than the other, if there’s no explanation,” Watts says, “it would be easy to go with the cheaper one.”
But Tiernan says cost shouldn’t be a factor for customers — her rings cost about the same as the rings at the mall, she says.
“As far as I know, the cost is the same, so there’s no reason to choose a blood diamond,” she says. “There’s lots of ways to make it affordable and sustainable.”
Another obstacle to eco-weddings is that they might not fit a traditional mold. While Watts and her partner haven’t felt torn between tradition and going green, she says she can imagine it happening.
“A lot of weddings are planned with mothers and older generations,” she says. “I think convincing them of the value of that might be a little difficult.”
Watts says it’s a question of staying true to what you care about. She says her wedding — which includes a Napa Valley farm-to-table venue and caterer, planted centerpieces that guests can take home instead of cut flowers, and cotton invitations over paper ones — hasn’t been a battle so far. But she hasn’t tracked down a wedding cake yet. That’s an area where the best options environmentally might not resemble tradition, says Boos.
“One thing that always works well is doing cupcakes instead of a cake,” the chef says. She says the difference is how the two are served.
“You don’t really need plates. You can use a biodegradable napkin and biodegradable cupcake wrappers,” she says.
Skipping plates and silverware means washing fewer dishes. And with many cakes, the impressive structure and style comes at a price.
“Any time you do a wedding cake you use cardboard,” Boos says. “We use recyclable cardboard, but still.”
Boos says the other step for eco-friendly baking is to use local ingredients whenever possible.
“Our dairy comes from an hour away,” she says. “Eighty percent of our ingredients, we partner with local farms.”
That’s true for eggs and milk as well as seasonal ingredients like raspberries, Boos says. But not everything in a cake can be Colorado-grown. Boos says there’s nothing she can do about baking’s effect on the environment in some cases.
“The transportation is the same, organic versus non-organic,” she says. “[And] there’s no sugar plants around here.”
It’s a good point. There’s very little chance of having a wedding without a little waste to go with it. But as long as you don’t order the 2,000-pound rock cake with cyanide icing, you’ll be doing the environment a favor.