The following steps will refer to a typical secular British wedding and thus needs to be adapted to suit local cultural differences. The steps are in vaguely chronological order but in reality most things can / should be run in parallel. It is also not an exhaustive list covering all possible elements as we did not stick very closely to convention, leaning towards informality and stripping things back we did not want or felt were superfluous.
It is important to remember the waste hierarchy during the whole process - reduce, reuse, recycle, etc. Also Think Local was a key tenet in “designing” our wedding. Circular strategies we used will be highlighted throughout the following in bold italic.
Set a date and a budget you’re comfortable with:
Note, while budget was not a primary concern for us (we actually focused on number of guests), a circular wedding tends to remove “nice to haves” and focuses on hire over buy and reuse over new. Therefore we found without particularly aiming to that our costs were significantly lower than an average UK wedding.
Set the number of guests:
the guidance would be fewer the better (reduce). Of course it is not linear, but a good proxy for halving environmental impact is to halve the number of guests. A further consideration, difficult if you have close relatives who live far away, is if there is an opportunity to reduce the number of guests that have to take long-haul flights, it will significantly decrease the wedding’s carbon footprint.
We were probably not as rigorous here as we could have been – our guest list was similar to the UK average, while having close family across the world meant that a handful of our guests’ made up the vast majority of the carbon footprint.
virtualise/dematerialise - a wedding website and emails as the main mode of interaction with guests increases convenience, allows changes, reduces footprint by going paperless instead of physical Save-the-date cards and Invitations. It also enables additional information like the Registry, photos and promotion of circular economy. If you are running a circular wedding, it of course makes sense to use the opportunity with a group of people who you will have more influence with than others to persuade them to be more circular and thus increase your positive impact.
On our circular economy promotional page, we espoused the benefits of the circular economy, pictures of useful frameworks and a request for guests to think about how they could be more circular in their own lives.
A not particularly circular but clear benefit of the paperless approach was putting a page of photos of the two of us; “Growing up” with baby photos and “Growing (up) together” from our adventures together. This was something we wouldn’t realistically be able to do share through physical invites etc. and was very well received, giving guests a further insight into our lives. We did consider printing the photos for somewhere in the reception but decided to save the trees instead.
Save-the-date and Invitations:
as above, aim to virtualise/dematerialise these using a website and emails to communicate with your guests. If you can’t wrench yourself away from convention, try to at least omit the Save-the-date card and go for recycled/biodegradable options
It was not a hard choice for us to remove these; we were happy to save on the energy and materials required, time and angst picking designs, and associated cost. This may be a harder choice for those keen to stick to convention but we recommend it, if only for the convenience.
considering ‘stuff’ is responsible for more than 40% of our environmental footprint, this is a great place to use reduce or virtualise/dematerialise strategies i.e. request no gifts or dematerialised gifts. Dematerialised gifts could be services, memberships, donations to charity or a financial contribution toward a honeymoon or future home. If all of these options aren’t for you and you can’t bring yourself to dematerialise then there are registries that pick ecologically sound products made from sustainable inputs. There are also online curated shops that focus on high quality reusable items that will last a life time e.g. cast iron cooking pots.
We asked for no gifts; we feel we have enough stuff and we don’t tend to associate happiness with new things anyway. For those that were insistent, willing and able, we had a link to donate to a charity dear to us.
here reuse over new is highly preferable, particularly as they are generally made of metal meaning significant energy is used for manufacture. Some people will have a family heirloom that they can reuse. If it has to be new, aim to pick something made from sustainable inputs, perhaps a wooden ring. It is of course possible to go down the reduce strategy i.e. not having a wedding ring at all, but this may be too unconventional for most.
We decided we did want wedding rings and that reuse resonated with us most. We didn’t have an heirloom so we visited a local antiques store and found some cheap bronze Roman rings, presumably found by someone with a metal detector in a field - there must be thousands if not millions of them littered across Europe. The rings fit well and we loved the fact that there was so much history associated with it – it was likely worn by someone around 1,800 years ago! We have noticed that the original dull dark grey/green complexion has started to give way to the original bright bronze shine – a lovely surprise! This approach won’t work for everyone but reuse should definitely be a workable strategy for rings.
like rings, the best practicable strategy is reuse then sustainable inputs - reduce may not go down too well with guests! For reuse, it may be possible to wear a family member’s, buy second hand, or hire.
For us, the bride’s dress was previously the bride’s sister’s dress. The bridesmaids dresses were former bridesmaids’ dresses. The groom wore his own clothes having debated hiring a suit, and there were no groomsmen to dress.
hair, make-up, spa, etc. These are generally service oriented so beyond using beauty products made from sustainable inputs and/or finding social enterprises who offered these services, there is limited gains using (social) circular economy principles.
virtualise/dematerialise i.e. go digital with the photography
In keeping with the relatively informal approach, we asked one of the bridesmaids to use our own camera. We also collected digital photos from the guests to get an unsanitised version of events.
a few things worth considering here:
a) Reduce net travel for the guest list: A destination wedding or somewhere far from public transport necessitates a much larger travel carbon footprint. A very rural country house may be a beautiful setting but may necessitate the whole guest list drive, adding significantly to carbon footprint.
b) Reduce distance between ceremony and reception: moving lots of people a long distance between ceremony and reception sites not only is logistically tricky, it also requires energy, typically using fossil fuels and thus producing emissions. Best to have the two parts of the wedding in the same location or at least close to reduce transportation requirements.
c) A natural setting: reduces the need for lighting and heating can make a significant difference. It’s more beautiful too!
d) Ensure leasing: hire linen, glasses, crockery, cutlery and other utensils from the venue i.e. reuse of these items and not having to either procure new or using disposable options (i.e. minimise waste);
e) Optimise utilisation: pick an appropriate setting for the guest list size which will help to minimise waste. For example, there is no point having 50 people at a venue that can hold 400 as the energy and materials required for lighting, heating, decorations, etc. will effectively be wasted.
We decided to stick with close family and friends for the ceremony in the morning meaning little travel required and only a few people having to move from registry to reception locations (which was close anyway). Since a large proportion of our guests came from Cambridge, it made sense to have both elements nearby. A significant proportion also came from London from which we encouraged people to take the 50 minute direct train (trains produce much lower emissions than cars).
We were keen to have a green ambience for the wedding and make use of the warmth and long summer day without even considering the bonus of reduced energy burden. We ended up going very local, picking The Orchard Tea Garden in Grantchester, just outside Cambridge, a beautiful and serene apple orchard that has hosted a bewildering array of historic figures including Stephen Hawking, Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw and John Maynard Keynes to name a few. It perfectly matched the informal vibe that we wanted and fit with the activities and entertainment we wished to have outside.
We hired one large room that could just fit all our guests in case of rain where the food/drink was stationed with seating too. The room had open French doors to allow access to the outside. We were lucky to have brilliant weather all day so most people spent their time outside. The venue provided all the glasses, plates, cutlery, toilet facilities, etc. we needed so none of that had to be bought or brought in separately.
unless using fake flowers, reuse type strategies are not feasible. The aim here is to source sustainably and choose local, in-season flowers wherever possible. One option is to forage wild flowers or pick from your garden.
We considered a walk to forage wild flowers the day before but with all the running around involved, we decided to leave this out. We were very sparse with the flowers, going with a few from the local market for the bride and bridesmaids rather than for the venue.
decorations vary widely so there isn’t much to say except to remind to keep in mind that tighter circles are better i.e. reduce, reuse, recycle.
We were very sparing with decorations. We were helped by family who made bunting from recovered textiles from Cambridge Community Scrapstore (now being reused in our home and garden) and a shelf and mirror from Emmaus used to liven up the food serving tables (also now being used at home). We chose these organisations as they are both examples of social circular enterprises i.e. support communities by using the value created by the circular economy.
this encapsulates two areas. One is how guests come to the wedding and the other is perhaps better termed ‘last mile logistics’, once folk have arrived in the vicinity. This could be to get people from an obvious central meeting point to your wedding location or to move people a short distance from the ceremony to the reception.
For getting to the wedding, it is worth using the wedding website to outline what are the greener modes of transport and encourage guests to take them.
We highlighted the best train times from London to Cambridge to make it easier for people to decide to take the train rather than drive.
For last mile logistics, we recommend using a quirky zero/low emission transport options to reduce your impact e.g. hiring a fleet of rickshaws, partybike (aka ‘pedibus’), electric cars, pedalos etc. The best may just simply be to walk!
Consider making the last mile logistics part of the entertainment itself rather than a necessary evil to be minimised. This approach decreases the stress of trying to keep to a strict schedule, and slowing down to enjoy it means that human-powered transport options are brought into play. Consider which you’d prefer, trying to load everyone into a fleet of minibuses to get them to the reception in 30 minutes or a 3-hour relaxed walk with a drink at a pub halfway?
Grantchester is 3km outside Cambridge so we picked a zero emission way to get everyone to the venue – punting. Punts are flat bottomed boats that are propelled with a long pole that is pushed against the riverbed. It is a fun and relaxing way to travel, and often associated with picnicking. We hired 13 punts to take our guests upriver, loading each with food and drink to provide a comfortable and gentle boating experience over a couple of hours up to the cricket pitch in Grantchester. Of course this is a highly local transportation solution but every place will have its own version of punting.
can come in all shapes and sizes, so the advice must be relatively generic i.e. think about tighter loops first, minimise waste and use sustainable inputs where possible. Good strategies are using services in order to virtualise/dematerialise (magicians, comedians, musicians), hiring i.e. optimise utilisation of stuff, and reusing and repurposing things you already have. Some people like to go extravagant e.g. fireworks as a big send-off but this is of course not aligned with a circular wedding so ensure these types of activity are reduced.
We had a bunch of garden games laid out around The Orchard: sumo suit, giant Connect 4, giant Jenga (hired), kubbs (borrowed from a friend), football croquet (hand made). We also had intention to have beer pong, a photobooth and tin can alley game, all also hand made pre-wedding by repurposing things from around the house - but these got forgotten on the day!
For music we had two types; we had cello/violin and flute/piano duets early on as we were lucky enough to have highly competent musicians in family and guests. After sunset, we put on the hired silent disco equipment which was very well received. We chose this route for a bunch of reasons:
- Not to annoy our neighbours;
- Allow folk to talk to each other without shouting;
- Allow folk to dance outside;
- Less energy needed; and
- Give a choice of three music channels for the listener to decide on.
while you have an audience whom you will have significantly more influence over than other people, try to convince your guests to adopt circular economy into their own lives, especially where it can be done at community level and help people at the same time.
We made a two-part speech, starting with the circular economy and the local suppliers we’d used then moved on to the usual “thank you”s – this order was deliberate as we thought people were likely to pay more attention at the beginning of speeches!
Food and drink:
While it’s difficult to know the exact impact of food, a good rule of thumb is to pick seasonal, local and organic i.e. use the sustainable inputs strategy. It may not be possible to have the venue caterer use these sources but it is worth asking the chef. To best ensure the right inputs however, it is likely that you will have to source them yourselves or at least get a separate caterer that shares the same values.
Another important way of reducing footprint is to reduce or eliminate meat; beef and lamb typically have significantly higher footprints than pork which is higher than chicken and fish.
While sustainable inputs may seem like the only circular economy strategy, in fact recovering surplus food i.e. minimising waste is another. There are increasingly a variety of organisations that may be able to assist to source this - typically supply volume is relatively constant but is variable in content e.g. supermarkets will tend to have a lot of surplus food going every day that will otherwise go to waste but it could be a lot of carrots one day and apples the next. Therefore, there needs to be a degree of flexibility on the menu to allow a snap decision once it is known what the recovered food is.
Food: We asked FoodCycle, an organisation that fits within the Social Circular Economy framework. It picks up surplus food from supermarkets to serve up delicious community meals. This means food doesn’t go to waste, supermarkets have lower waste disposal costs, volunteers cook and dish up within a fun team setting, and people in the community, particularly those that are disadvantaged, get a free meal and make new friends. FoodCycle served up mushroom goulash, banana skin curry, mac ’n’ cheese, scones, apple pie, vegetarian pizzas, various salads, finger foods and canapés sourced from Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencers, cash & carries and local suppliers.
FoodCycle took care of the majority of the food needs but we also wanted to reflect a little of our own heritage. So we found local suppliers to serve up a few morsels from our different cultures:
a) British: Gorgeous strawberries grown locally. We also had the FoodCycle scones for dessert.
b) South African: here we meat cheated. We sourced biltong and boerewors from an award-winning South African butcher from a nearby town; they also do a scrumptious melktert, a classic milk-based tart.
c) Japanese: sushi and homemade dorayaki desserts, a childhood favourite.
d) American: FoodCycle made mac 'n’ cheese and apple pie. The intention was also to have CamCattle meat (cows fed on commons land in and around Cambridge) in sliders (mini burgers) but unfortunately this didn’t work out.
Cake: we skipped the traditional cake and opted for the various desserts mentioned above from our heritages, allowing guests to mix and match what they wanted.
Drinks: We were keen to source as local as possible so ended up tasting with increasing radius until things passed a “good enough” threshold.
Wine: The UK is not known for its wine but there is a growing number of vineyards. We got some white wine from Chilford Hall about 15km from us but had to go a little more south (more sun!) for the sparkling options. We found a lovely sparkling rosé from Dedham Vale (~60km) and a white sparkling wine from Chapel Down in Kent. We managed to circumvent making a potentially unnecessary visit to both by getting a bottle of each to taste from a local supermarket. We never found an appealing English red so we took the reduce option here i.e. eliminated it.
Beer and cider: we went with Lord Conrad’s based less than 10km away. The beers taste great and are brewed from local sustainably sourced ingredients. Even the waste water is returned safely. We sourced our cider from the Cambridge Cider Company via the same brewery.
Other: we stuck with Pimm’s, Cambridgeshire apple juices (Watergull Orchards) and local gins.
either choose the reduce option i.e. eliminate it or go for something meaningful with home-made items from repurposed / reused materials or sustainable inputs.
We had FoodCycle provide lovely chutneys from recovered food and rejected M&S gingerbread men due to the lack of eyes.
here the more local you can go the better i.e. reduce the distance and thus footprint. Of course there is a tension of going somewhere further for something more exotic and different, versus staying local which may seem less special.
It is worth considering that there is often a misconception that flights are particularly more polluting than car travel. The main thing is that it’s much easier to rack up the miles on an airplane very quickly – an occasional driver may take a year to drive 5,000km but you could do that in a six hour flight. Trains are typically much better from an emissions perspective. Using terrestrial forms of transportation generally slows you down meaning lower impact.
We deviated here from our intended plan – we were thinking of a Cornwall/Devon or Scotland trip but as we had family from all over the world and they wanted to see Europe, we had a week long “family moon” in Sicily – at least it was short-haul I guess.
is a way to reduce, or rather counteract, the emissions you can’t prevent. It can help to mitigate climate change and often provides support for impoverished communities. Of course it requires measuring your footprint which helps to manage and thus hopefully reduce it to start with; but for unavoidable negative impact, it can be a useful mitigation tool.
From a personal perspective, I don’t particularly like the promotion of offsetting as a broad strategy as it can lead to a pay-to-play scenario, effectively allowing those with means to pollute as much as they like. Best to start with the mentality of reducing your impact in the first place. The vast majority of our wedding’s footprint came from the travel associated with a small number of guests. To offset this we donated to Cool Earth, an organisation that supports communities living adjacent to deforestation zones to build livelihoods and ensure they earn more from the forest than clearing it. This acts as a shield to continuing deforestation, with the aim of each hub becoming self-funded within seven years. Cool Earth has the same values as a social circular enterprise but it is mainly grant-funded and therefore doesn’t quite qualify. Cool Earth has been rated as the most cost-effective charity which works on mitigating climate change through direct action.