How I'm Planning A Chic, Sustainable Wedding—Without Spending A Gazillion Dollars

May 5, 2022

Did you dream up your perfect wedding, or already have one, dumplings? It used to be something closer to my heart, and now that I’m actually engaged and wedding planning, I realize so much of what I consider desirable has changed. Some part of it is that the world isn’t the same place. To me, the idea of marrying someone as the world moves closer to ecological and political catastrophe is still very meaningful. But making it a costly “fairytale” wedding just doesn’t seem quite right. And I myself have changed: I’m a mid-thirties professional woman, so stressing out over the tiniest wedding details (like which color ink goes with which place card…) when I could be working and doing other more fun things just doesn’t reflect my priorities. Instead, I’m planning (in the loosest way) a chic, elegant, and sustainable wedding. (Yes, I admit this is a major French influence I absorbed from their general nonchalance toward a big white wedding. Ugh my stupidly consistent Francophilia.) Without further ado, here are some of the tips I am incorporating for an eco wedding.

What I’m cutting back on

Consider the city hall wedding

If you’d have asked me a few years ago whether I’d ever do a city hall wedding, I would’ve screamed. But given that my fiancé and I are both busy with work and frequent travel, something that gets us legally married makes sense—and gives us time to plan a real “friends and family” ceremony in a relaxed fashion. This immediately knocks out thousands, if not tens of thousands from your wedding cost, and lets you plan more impulsively as opposed to setting the date a year (or more) out in advance. You also don’t have to skimp out on glamour. A friend of mine decided to set the date just one week out at city hall, bought a beautiful vintage white Chanel suit on eBay for about a thousand dollars, and had it tailored for free at the Chanel boutique. You don’t have to stick to a little white dress, either. I’ve already bought my city-hall dress, which is actually an A-line gown with a train: its simple Mikado fabric and clean lines still make it appropriate for the location.

You don’t have to give up on dreams of an outdoor wedding if you go this route. Another friend was on the way to the city hall when the justice of the peace suggested they stop at the local park and do it outside instead. Check out public parks, reserves, forests, and sanctuaries for a spot that feels like you.

Get a secondhand or sample dress

Back to the dress! I originally planned on getting a custom wedding dress ($6,000+) made just for moi by a vegan Parisian designer Rime Arodaky. I even tried on dresses and got my measurements taken at her Champs Elysée showroom, which was as chic an experience as it sounds! But I wanted to see what else is out there, and ended up purchasing off-the-rack wedding dresses from two great boutiques in Portland. Blue Sky Bridal is a consignment wedding dress boutique with locations in Portland and Seattle, and I purchased a new sample dress there for my “actual” ceremony ($1,500 retail, $975 sample price). Brides for a Cause is a charity shop selling dresses donated by bridal designers across the country, with locations in multiple cities. The proceeds benefit women’s charities such as Dress for Success, and you also rescue unsold or sample dresses from wastage. I bought my city-hall dress there, which is also a sample dress ($2,500 retail, $200 sample price!!). I also might here add that they have a 22% off every 22nd day of the month through the year 2022, so I ended up paying a ridiculous $164 for my wedding dress plus garment bag.

Brides for a Cause dress. You can also donate your dress here after your wedding.

Both of my dresses are made with non-silk fabrics: polyester crêpe and polyester Mikado. I went into dress shopping hoping either to find a secondhand silk dress or, if new, a non-silk dress. If I were in the mood (and budget) to go crazy, would I get a cruelty-free peace-silk dress sewn up by songbirds? It does sound amazing. But one thing I’m finding out in all areas of my life is that flexibility goes a long way.

Look into your local consignment wedding boutiques because if I’d gone there first, I’d have saved A LOT of time I spent browsing The RealReal for a secondhand white dress. Major Tip: I highly recommend buying your dress in person because this is a tailored, “fits like a glove” item. Underwear and socks, this is not.

Ask friends to help with photography, DJing, etc.

A lot of wedding magazines say you should NOT skimp out on a good photographer and even a videographer. If having a great set of photos is important to you, then maybe this is something you keep. But here’s what I think: having been maid of honor to my sister, who hired a great photographer to document her every move during her wedding, I don’t necessarily know that I want 12 pictures each of my invitations, ring, shoes, me getting my makeup and hair done. Nowadays, so many people are semi-pro photographers anyway, that asking a friend to use their DSLR (or even the latest smartphone) seems like a cool way to shave off thousands from your cost. Do you have other friends with cooking or musical talent? See if they want to donate their skills as a “wedding present.” I, personally, don’t see the need to spend a ton of money on a wedding band or DJ when you can simply create a Spotify list of your favorite songs beforehand.

Please, no fireworks or sparklers

I am going to sound like such a grandma here, but fireworks and sparklers are crowdpleasers that are secretly environmentally harmful. The noise from fireworks negatively impacts wildlife, pets, and PTSD sufferers, and both fireworks and sparklers release harmful chemicals into the environment. I don’t know who created this idea that romantic weddings have fireworks at the end, but it has to stop! Soy or coconut-based wax candles create a much chicer ambiance for your reception.

Wedding favors

This means no insult, but: Never have I ever received a wedding favor that was so good I really wanted to treasure them forever. It is often a source of massive waste. I would much rather have taken the wedding flowers home to enjoy, so that’s what I’ll do.

Weird ways the bridesmaids are forced to spend money and also create waste

Being a MOH once and also seeing my friends’ experiences have taught me that there is a lot of financial and emotional strain that goes into a wedding party. For my sister’s wedding, for example, she asked me to order an ivory dress from Etsy that I literally never wore again. She also asked me to wear purple shoes, so I bought a pair of purple mules that I maybe wore a few other times before donating. It’s worth asking: is it really worth it to buy (or expect your friends to buy) a bunch of T-shirts or robes that say “Bridesmaid” on them? Or shoes in a color that doesn’t match anything else in their wardrobe? While I will have a small wedding party, I will ask them to pick their own color (Reformation has a good selection of colors and cuts for a mix and match look)—and I would definitely never ask them to buy shoes.

What I’m keeping somewhat maximalist

Eco wedding invitations

Creating a wedding website and e-vites will reduce paper waste, and if you’re happy skipping the traditional invitations, do it! I have definitely not kept any of my friends’ paper invitations, as pretty as they were (sorry guys!!). However, as someone who prefers an actual book as opposed to an ebook, I totally keep using paper for the right reasons, and getting married feels like one of them. Consider: recycled or FSC-certified paper, soy ink, and reducing the “set” down to the invitation and RSVP card, and leaving other details to a wedding website. Select fun environmental / conservation stamps that donate to related charities. I also plan on asking a local calligrapher to handwrite the invitations (not necessarily “eco,” but just beautiful).

An organic vegan menu à la carte, on real plates, with real glasses

Having been to a number of wedding by this point, I’ve definitely come to realize that I prefer an à la carte dinner served at the table, as opposed to a buffet (the lines are not chic!!). For someone who just bragged about buying a $164 wedding dress, I’m also a snob about real plates and silverware, real glasses, real tablecloth, linens, centerpieces overflowing with fresh flowers. (Kill me rather than force me to use a paper napkin at a wedding!) It’s more elegant and eco-friendly—but if you must go the disposable route, look into compostable dishes, bamboo plates, and cutlery (they also photograph better, too). My least favorite disposable item is plastic cups, so consider sourcing glassware through your venue, caterer, local Goodwill and thrift stores, or friends and family.

Fresh flowers

I don’t think one needs a lot of frills like confetti, those little place card holders made of tiny tree stumps, and other doodads to dress up a celebration. The elements of a truly chic table / ceremony are just fresh flowers and candles (plus aforementioned real table linens, etc). Work with a florist who sources directly from local farms to avoid carbon-heavy flowers from far-flung locales. For more reasons on the human and ecological impact of most flowers, check out this article.

Get glam splurges like facials, hair, accessories

Since I saved lots of money on the dress, I plan on using some to get regular facials and buy elevated skincare products. I also have to have my hair professionally done—but I will be doing my own makeup. I will also be getting some hair accoutrements like the veil. Say Yes to the Dress is right: You don’t look like a bride without a veil.

Related: Planning Your Cruelty-free Bridal Makeup

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Photo: Brides for a Cause; Zane Persaud via Unsplash

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