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In the heady days of Life Before Coronavirus, the wedding industry was booming. We'd come a long way from the 1950s, when a wedding would cost around £70 on average (about £2,250 in today's money). In 2019, a couple could expect to spend around £32,000 on their nuptials according to Hitched's National Wedding Survey, and the UK's wedding industry was valued at around £10 billion a year. From the hen do to party favours, the location to the decor, you’d be forgiven for believing that no expense should be spared on a couple's special day: the bigger – and perhaps more Instagrammable – the better.
With all that celebratory excess inevitably came waste of all kinds. Take our old friend, single-use plastic. Based on the average wedding party of 100 people, Sky Ocean Rescue calculated that a typical UK wedding creates approximately 18kg of plastic waste. If the plastic waste from every UK wedding were added up, it would equate to over 4,910 tonnes of single-use plastic – equivalent in weight to 47 blue whales. But it’s not just plastic: in 2017, Sainsbury’s found that a tenth of wedding food – worth about £500 per wedding – is thrown away, with wedding cake and edible party favours the main culprits. Once you take into account the rise of destination weddings and the impact of travel, the impulse to buy (not rent) decorations and the popularity of big wedding parties, it all adds up to a lot of emissions and waste.
All this, however, has been thrown up in the air as pandemic restrictions stalled wedding plans all over the world. Only this week has there been another change to the restrictions: weddings in England are now limited to a party of 15, down from the 30 previously established. But with that pause has come the chance for many couples and planners to re-evaluate what a wedding can and should be.
Questioning the role of weddings and the function they play within a relationship by no means started this year. The latest analysis from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that marriage between opposite-sex couples is the lowest it's been since records began (though same-sex marriages are on the rise). Of those who are getting married, more couples than ever are pursuing a less traditional route. According to the most recent ONS data, covering 2017, less than a quarter (22%) of marriages were religious.
The desire to make more eco-conscious wedding choices and/or have smaller ceremonies was already gaining popularity pre-pandemic with firmly established websites like Green Union and the Natural Wedding Company. According to Bridebook's National Wedding Survey, 39% of couples were taking sustainability into consideration in 2018. However according to Gwenda, the owner and editor of Green Union, there has been a marked increase in interest more recently.
"There's definitely more people looking at this now," she tells R29. "You can see just from website statistics and Instagram followers and all that kind of thing. I think it's a nice reflection on people's lifestyle in general. A wedding may just be one day but you'd like to think that generally speaking, it reflects how they would ordinarily go ahead with their lives."
For R29’s Jess Commons, the pandemic has had a direct influence on her decision to go down a more eco-friendly route. As someone in her early 30s who has spent most of the past 10 summers at weddings up and down the country, she was keen for hers to be big, with 150 guests and two hen dos (one abroad, one at home). And while she intended to take sustainability into consideration when planning, it was hardly integral to the process. But those plans have been put to bed by the pandemic, which has not only restricted the size of her wedding to her long-term partner but put the very idea of a wedding in a new light. "At the risk of sounding cheesy, the pandemic has really put stuff into perspective about what matters," she says. "The things we've become really grateful for are friends, family and the world around us and the last thing I want to do is contribute more to the damage I already do to it.”
Instead she’s set her heart on a small(er), sustainable wedding day. "I've decided to rent my dress, or buy it secondhand or from a sustainable brand, making sure it's something I will wear more than once. I'll hopefully be able to have more than 30 people but not the amount we were planning. We'll rent a big tent in case it rains, rent composting loos and rent as much as we can when it comes to plates and cutlery and equipment. Food is going to be veggie and there's going to (hopefully) be nothing single-use, including on the local and inexpensive hen do — which means absolutely no willy straws. I'm hoping I can learn more about creating a sustainable day as the planning continues."
The things we've become really grateful for are friends, family and the world around us and the last thing I want to do is to contribute more to the damage I already do to it
Kate Beavis is company director at Magpie Wedding, curators of the Ethical Wedding Show. She agrees that the pandemic has given people a chance to rethink what, and who, we want to prioritise. "For some people, having a smaller wedding, a more intimate wedding, or a more ethical, sustainable wedding seems possible because we've re-evaluated what's important in general. Part of that is the planet and what's happening around the world – it's made us conscious of it all. I think people were probably a little bit more extravagant before and now we're going to see weddings being pared back, and every decision and choice becomes an important one, rather than a frivolous one."
While many are actively making the choice, it’s fair to assume that for many others it’s a byproduct of the times. As well as government restrictions on how many can attend a wedding, there are the financial constraints or considerations brought about by the pandemic and subsequent recession, which have obliged many people to re-budget or cancel their plans. According to a study by the luxury jewellery retailer Goldsmiths, 49% of couples are planning on spending less on their wedding day post-COVID, with a third of Brits being happy to go ahead with a smaller wedding if it means they could get married sooner (34%). It's coincidental that a smaller and cheaper wedding will probably generate fewer CO2 emissions, and likely lead to less waste.
But whether the shift towards more sustainable weddings is purposeful or coincidental, the enforced pause has given many a chance to reflect on what they actually want from the day. While same-sex couples are in the somewhat freeing position of being able to pick and choose from tradition, opposite-sex couples have not been afforded that opportunity, until now. "I think part of that has been because society and the media and friends and family tell you it has to be like that, so we've been conditioned that that's what a wedding should be like," says Kate. Now there is space to consider whether you as a couple really want all the stuff you thought you should have, or what it might look like on a smaller scale. "It becomes less showy and more thoughtful, which is in some ways amazing from the planet's perspective."
As Kate points out, there are drawbacks. "From the industry's perspective it's not so good because obviously if our weddings become pared back it does impact businesses." Many of these businesses are female-owned and as the National Association of Wedding Professionals previously told Wired, the impact of the pandemic could be catastrophic on an industry which consists largely of small businesses and individuals. However, Gwenda says that the pandemic has also brought out the ingenuity of suppliers as well as couples. "It's definitely mixing people's ideas up. However daunting all these things seem, once you get past the initial panic there's so much you could do. One venue I was actually at today was purely a wedding venue but now they’re opening as a pop-up restaurant. Teepee hire companies who'd normally hire them out for guest accommodation and things like that are doing pop-up camping in people's gardens, that sort of thing. Everyone's coming around to getting used to it as that new normal."
For suppliers that have a vested interest in the environment, the reduced travel has its benefits too, says Gwenda. This folds into the more general impulse to support local businesses which many have felt this year. More than ever, people want to do what they can to support their communities. "A lot [of suppliers] I've spoken to have enjoyed the fact that they haven't had to drive so far and that sort of thing," says Gwenda. "Keeping things much more local is obviously one of the first steps that anybody can do, regardless of how eco-conscious one is, that has that positive effect."
There are predictions that this move is here to stay – Bridebook predicts that eco-friendly weddings are going to be a big 2021 trend – but it is by no means a certainty. There’s every chance that couples will go barrelling into huge weddings in far-flung destinations the moment they can. Yet Gwenda is quietly optimistic that the majority will not leave more thoughtful and more ethical choices by the wayside.
"One hopes it becomes something that is more normal for people and (pardon the pun) more natural. That's sort of the premise that I had with Green Union: that prior to my taking over it always seemed that an eco-friendly wedding was sort of the preserve of the alternative couple. But it can be a part of everybody's wedding day. It doesn't even have to be very obvious." Kate echoes Gwenda: "We run the Ethical Wedding Show and we talk about sustainability but we're also aware that not everybody is really into that. Frankly, some people will want a dress that isn't the most ethical, so we're all about making small changes. You don't have to have a fully vegan wedding, for example, but why don't you introduce more meat-free options?" A sustainable wedding doesn’t have to 'look' eco-friendly but if your dress is pre-loved, your venue has a sustainability policy, everything is locally sourced, the wedding party is small and there’s no single-use plastic, you’re already making a big difference.
With everything that has happened in 2020 – and the impact it will continue to have – a wedding feels less like the central moment in a relationship that it had become. Instead it is part of the continuation of that relationship, albeit a particularly nice part. As such a wedding does not call for single-use plastic, food waste or flashy decorations but rather decorations you can reuse, food to be shared in the future, small moments and gestures that can be kept and treasured, not thrown away.
Eco-friendly weddings are part of a movement to fundamentally reframe what a wedding can and should be: a celebration of love, not an expensive, wasteful showpiece. In our brave new world of social distancing, delayed and cancelled plans and re-evaluated priorities, we can only hope it’s a trend that will continue.
If you’re looking to plan a wedding in the future, here is some carefully sourced advice for how to make more eco-conscious choices.
Look at every alternative before buying
"One of the things we talk about is a sustainability model for your choices. The first is 'can I borrow it?' If you can't borrow, 'can you make it?' (Then you still haven't actually spent any money.) The next stage is 'can you get it secondhand?' The fourth stage is 'can you hire it?' And then the last stage is 'can I buy it?'
"One of the other things we talk about is if you do buy something, think about putting that item back into that chain. Could you lend it to a friend who's getting married? Could you rent it out? Could you give it to a charity shop to sell on? What else can you do? And this is again something that I'm hopeful will start to change more, that conscious decision-making." – Kate Beavis, Magpie Weddings
Keep everything local
"When you get married, most people just stay in the local chains but what about the people that own guest houses in the next village – why don't you support them? Think about seasonality too. All brides want peonies in their bouquets but peonies are only grown in May. So for a peony to be imported in November it has had loads of air miles and also loads of water. So why don't you have flowers that are in season?" – Kate
"Thinking about the source of your food and drink is really important. Try and use ingredients that are organic and local. Be sure to check for destructive ingredients such as palm oil or if pesticides were used during the farming process. Packaging is also a big issue; try and avoid single-use plastics and instead opt for recyclable and reusable materials. Choose caterers that recycle, donate or reuse waste, even the food itself. There are some caterers that really go above and beyond." – Louise Baltruschat Hollis, Whimsical Wonderland Weddings
Ask venues, suppliers and vendors about their eco credentials
"My core advice is to first of all think of what your biggest expenses are. First off, it's almost always the venue. So choose a venue that has its own sustainability policy. Because that then is the biggest way that your wedding alone can save on its impact. And then work your way down the list of your other expenses." – Gwenda, Green Union
Find compromises for things that matter to you
"There are always compromises that you're going to have to make along the way. For example, when we got married, my husband's from Arizona so five of his family members flew over, and that's quite a lot of mileage they put on to that. If you use an online calculator you can see how much that would tally up to in CO2 terms, and then you can carbon offset: find a programme or make a donation to an environmental charity to offset that. All in all, keep things local and really think about how important certain things are to you. Just have the people that you really want there. Look at all the wedding conventions. If you've been to weddings and you've seen wedding favours that are just discarded, choose something edible (that always goes down a treat) or something to drink (that goes down even better!) or forgo them entirely. Focus on the priorities and what's important to you." – Gwenda