A typical British wedding will last about nine or 10 hours. The betrothed couple, who have been together for roughly four years, will both be around 32 years old when they walk down the aisle. They will invite approximately 104 people to celebrate their union, which will cost £27,000 (about the same as the average UK annual salary).
And when the confetti has settled, their typical British wedding will have produced one third of a metric tonne of solid waste and 14.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide in just one day. (By comparison, annual carbon emissions per capita in the UK are about 9.1 tonnes). Multiply that by the 250,000 weddings that take place in the UK each year, and we’ve got a big, fat ungreen wedding problem on our hands.
And it’s all Princess Diana’s fault. *Record scratch sound*
Lady Diana Spencer’s marriage to Prince Charles in the summer of 1981 – which featured a glass coach, a 25-foot bridal train and 28 wedding cakes – cost £30 million, making it the most expensive wedding of all time.
In the decades that immediately preceded Diana and Charles’ very big day, things were quite different. Disdainful of the vulgar displays of wealth and status they saw in previous generations’ wedding rituals, countercultural couples of the 60s and 70s had been tying much simpler knots.
But Diana was a global sensation, and when her sensationally extravagant wedding was broadcast to an estimated 750 million people worldwide (almost 17% of the entire population on earth at the time), a cultural shift occurred. Within a decade, millions were aspiring to fairytale nuptials of their own.
Today, the wedding industry is worth more than £10bn to the UK economy each year (in the US that figure goes up to about $50bn). And while there are certainly a growing number of wedding suppliers and websites offering more environmentally-friendly ways to engage in engagements, when it comes to wedding, the industry – and our culture – clearly values aesthetic ideals over moral ones.
Fed a steady pop culture diet of Disney and modern princess stories (Kim Kardashian, anyone?), we have been brought up to believe that in order to have a good life, we must get married. And to have a good marriage, we must have the perfect wedding. And that comes at a tremendous cost.
Our internal monologue goes something like this:
“Okay, so enormous amounts of food and single-use decorations will be wasted. Bleached and mass-produced dresses will be made from oil-derived and polluting nylon. Cut flowers covered in pesticides will be flown in from around the world. Irresponsibly-mined diamonds and many unnecessary registry gifts will be bought. Gas-guzzling limos will be rented, and thousands of air miles will be flown by hundreds of guests. We practically live inside our phones, but when it comes to a wedding, we will become Emily Post faithfuls who insist on printing and posting elaborate save-the-dates, invitations and post-wedding thank yous. Not to mention the engagement parties, costly bachelor/bachelorette trips and minimoons, honeymoons and maximoons in exotic locales. But it’s all in service of our ‘special day’, so how can that be a bad thing? Cutting costs, and environmental impact, will only cheapen our love, right?”
The wedding industry both advances and profits from this ‘Wedding Industrial Complex’ – a not-entirely-ironic nod to the other destructive industrial complexes (Military, Prison, etc.) that similarly exploit people for profit.
Sometimes this excess gets validated by wrapping itself in a cloak of ‘tradition’ – that stubborn, insidious word that so often escapes critique and demands reverence based on little more than nostalgia, a lack of imagination or the assumed wishes of some long-dead relative.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, it has little to do with tradition at all.
At one time the customary thing was for brides to walk down the aisle with a simple bouquet of garlic, dill and other herbs to ward off evil spirits. Queen Victoria changed that.
Most women’s wedding dresses used to be the best dress already hanging in their closet. But Queen Victoria and her white wedding gown changed that too.
Veils were first introduced as another form of protection from the aforementioned evil spirits. But they became a status symbol in the Victorian era, with brides wearing more elaborate veils to signify their wealth.
Why do we keep modelling our marriage ceremonies on royal family members being extra?
With the decidedly unromantic notion of climate change threatening the future happiness of literally every couple on earth, it’s time for new traditions. To de-programme ourselves and break free from the courtship conveyor belt vigorously upheld by an Insta-generation seeking validation through aspiration.
And it starts by popping the question: “Why?”
Why do I need the brand new white dress?
Why do we have to invite our parents’ second cousins?
Why do we print out invitations our friends will immediately misplace?
Why do we have to individually wrap 127 pouches of colour-coordinated jellybeans?
Why do we have to subscribe to a matrimonial hegemony that demands we stage a storybook wedding that is both environmentally unwise and just may bankrupt us in the process?
There are many ways to experience love and fulfilling partnerships today. Our relationships are mysterious, idiosyncratic and deeply personal, enriched by the irrepressible plurality of human existence. So why do we imitate a wedding formula that gained popularity in the 1980s? People were making terrible choices back then.
Luckily for us, another royal wedding is about to be broadcast to millions in just a few weeks. On May 19, Meghan and Harry will have a chance to atone for the royal family’s previous errors in excess, and set a new, more purposeful and eco-conscious template for the generations that will follow them down the aisle.
So, herewith are a few humbly offered ideas to make their big day’s environmental footprint a little smaller:
The guest list
The single best way to limit a wedding’s carbon footprint is to cut down on the guest list. Glad you started with this guy.
We know it’s a ‘royal wedding’ and all, but does everyone really need their own individual programme and menu? And don’t you think Granny would get a thrill out of receiving one’s thank you card on one’s smart phone?
If you don’t think Uncle Andrew can stomach an entirely meat-free wedding breakfast, consider all-vegetarian canapés and in-season, local options. Organic is also a plus – presumably Harry’s dad can help with that one.
No one will miss the box sets of Suits. Donate the money to an environmental charity instead.
We hear your florist is decorating the chapel mostly with flowers and plants sourced from royal lands, and that they’ll be given to local charities after the wedding. Nice touch.
Will and Kate’s wedding was responsible for creating more than 6,765 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e), largely from the journeys of their 1,900 guests. This may be the only time that we endorse a horse-drawn carriage.
Rather than make a long haul flight back to Botswana, can we interest you in a sweet little AirBnB in the Scottish Highlands?
Limiting the single use items like bedazzled bridal flip-flops, and renting or reusing items like Diana’s tiara is planet-friendly and a great way to stay within your multi-million pound budget.
Or, better yet, you could walk down to the Chelsea Old Town Hall for a quickie service at the registry office, saving a great deal of money and waste in the process.
Now that’s a princess story we could really get behind.
Too Much Wedding
As an antidote to the princess wedding fantasies peddled by pop culture and stoked by an insatiable wedding industry, Do The Green Thing has written Too Much Wedding, a children’s book for grown ups that takes aim at our unsustainable (and unromantic) Wedding Industrial Complex.
Read the familiar story of a young couple whose plan for a ‘small wedding’ is hijacked by familial expectation and modern excess. As their wedding grows more ridiculous in scale and environmental footprint, their relationship deteriorates. Will they make it down the aisle? Or will the flame of their romance be suffocated by all the stuff?
You’ll just have to read it to find out.
Words: Do The Green Thing
Illustrations: Gwendal Le Bec
Voiceover: Fay Ripley
Animation: Mat Hill
Sound design: Iain Grant