Real ethical weddings

Katie and Jamie - Copyright Mason and Field Photography

Katie and Jamie

The couple: Katie & Jamie
Wedding date:
23 April 2005
Location: Kingston Country Courtyard, Dorset

As a child, I don’t think I ever dreamed about the big white wedding with me as the princess in the middle of it all.

Ok there was the time I married big ted wearing my mum’s veil and best necklace when I was about 4!

Or now that I think of it, there was that photo of me and my sister – me (aged 7) in my mum’s wedding dress, my sister (aged 4) carrying plastic flowers and wearing a tutu over her pyjamas as my bridesmaid. But leaving that aside, it wasn’t the be all and end all.

Katie and Emma, bride and bridesmaid

Nonetheless, I had always assumed I would get married one day.

The proposal
After a series of unsuitable suitors (in fact none proposed – the longest relationship lasted three months!), I didn’t really expect to find the love of my life sitting on the floor of a grimy corridor in a hall of residence in Sheffield. But so it was. We chatted about A-Levels and where we were from – and didn’t get together for another four years when we finally decided we were “more than just friends”!

Katie & Jamie in Sheffield

Another four years down the line and we were walking in the peak district the day after Valentine’s Day 2004 when my ever-obliging boyfriend, helping me do up the shoe laces on my hiking boots, decided that while he was down there on one knee, he might as well pop the question!

Of course I said yes (despite my lack of princess pretensions, I had been harassing him to ask this question for the last year so it would have been rude not to!) and our attentions turned to the planning of the wedding, which was to take place in a year’s time.

An expensive business
For a while I resisted the lure of the glossy wedding magazines, convinced they had nothing to offer me, but once I gave in there was no going back and soon they were everywhere – on every sofa, every coffee table, beside the loo – for my housemates and my fiancé there was no escape!

What we quickly discovered from these venerable tomes was that weddings are potentially a very expensive business. The average wedding of 2004 apparently cost £17,000, money we simply did not have, especially not to spend on just one day. A quick flick through showed that many of the greater excesses could be easily avoided (the £500 Gucci watch as a gift to your bridesmaid, for example – sorry bridesmaids!) but it also highlighted just how much money there is in the wedding industry and we started to think about where it was all going.

A Wilde wedding
Skip to a couple of weeks later and a quiet moment reading the Oscar Wilde short story, ‘The Young King’. The story, which tells of the preparations for the coronation of the young king of the title, struck a particular chord with me at that time, attuned as I was to the extravagances of the modern wedding.

The young king demands the best of everything for his coronation; it is his ‘big day’ after all. His robes, the pearls, the rubies that are to adorn his sceptre, no expense nor effort are to be spared in the search for perfection. What he does not take into account is the human cost (and you could also say the environmental cost) of his demands and it takes a dream to make this real to him.

In his dream, he is able to observe the different people around the world slaving and even dying to fulfil his demands, the boy who is made to dive again and again until he finds the perfect pearl – and then dies, the weavers making the fabric for his robes, working for a pittance. When the king-to-be awakes the morning of the coronation, he can no longer bear to wear the results of such suffering:

‘…on the loom of sorrow, and by the white hands of Pain, has this my robe been woven. There is Blood in the heart of the ruby, and Death in the heart of the pearl‘.

And he asks: ‘Shall Joy wear what Grief has fashioned?‘.

The contrast between a day of celebration and the suffering that has gone into making it possible is too great.

Over the years, I had become increasingly interested in fair trade, human rights and issues affecting the environment. The short story by Oscar Wilde suddenly made all these things very relevant to our own day of celebration and we resolved there and then that wherever possible our celebrations should not take place at anyone else’s expense.

Ethical expectations
We soon realised that this was easier said than done. As we took our first hesitant steps in planning our wedding, we felt overwhelmed by the task ahead of us. Reading accounts of ‘green’ and ethical weddings that were starting to appear in the press, we were both inspired and overawed by what others had achieved.

Katie wedding planning

Often I would become very frustrated or simply too tired (at 2 in the morning) to carry on searching for caterers, organic fabrics and fair trade rings on the Internet. I assumed that my fiancé and I were not alone in our search for an ethical wedding and imagined other newly engaged couples trying to do the right thing but ultimately finding the task too taxing and time-consuming at a time when there are so many things to plan, organise and think about in an ordinary way, let alone in an ethical way.

A place to wed
The first big issue we had to tackle was the venue; sadly my parents’ garden doesn’t quite have the capacity for 120 people so we had to look further afield. And we looked and looked, casting the net wider and wider to try to find something big enough that didn’t tie us in to an expensive all-inclusive package.

Kingstone Country Courtyard

The place we plumped for was a barn about a 25-minute drive from my parents’ home. The couple who owned it had originally farmed on the land but with squeezes from supermarkets on farmers it was loss making and they converted their farm into a B&B to make some money.

A couple staying with them one weekend looked out on the old decrepit barn and asked if they could have their wedding reception in it! And it has been a popular venue ever since. The couple were lovely, the barn ample, and they thought it would be fine for us to get married in the little church 5 minutes up the road (it had been for couples in the past).

So we went for it. We could bring in our own caterers, our own decorations, everything. And guests could stay in the farm cottages scattered around the yard.

Katie & Jamie engaged

Terms of engagement
At the same time, my fiancé was struggling to find an appropriate engagement ring. The engagement ring seems to be such a big deal these days – or maybe it always was – perhaps somewhat self-centredly I only became aware of it when I got engaged! It took quite a while from the proposal of marriage to the bestowal of the ring.

This was partly due to my fiancé’s fulltime occupation as ‘student’ during the first few months of our engagement, and partly due to my insistence that whatever it was, it must be ethical!

I have never been overly fussed about diamonds and, given the ethical issues surrounding them, was quite happy to have an alternative stone if necessary. Not being a ring-wearer at the time, I wasn’t that bothered about even having a ring but my fiancé said I must have one! (And as he doesn’t often put his foot down about anything I thought I should give in to him on this – it’s a sacrifice but that’s what relationships are about!).

So I left it up to him and after much ‘conflict free diamond’ searching on the Internet on his part, my steps were steered towards Carnaby Street where we encountered the beautiful ‘beach’ diamonds (diamonds that have been washed out to sea – no mining and certainly no conflict involved) in a simple platinum ring setting courtesy of Jess James – a job well done!

Church rules

Katie & Jamie's church wedding

Meanwhile, back at the barn, we hit problems. The previous incumbent of the village church, who had been fairly relaxed about marrying couples from outside the area, had sadly died, and the new vicar, while charming, was playing by the rules.

After much debating, investigating this avenue and that, we realised we would not be able to get married there. We headed back to my parents’ house wondering what to do. We chatted with our local vicar and eventually the upshot was that we got married there, from my parents’ town where I grew up.

In environmentally-friendly terms it was one of our compromises as we weren’t able to walk from the church to the reception venue, but my dad got to have his vintage car dream fulfilled and the service was wonderful, the vicar engaging and amusing (he even fell over in his endeavours to make a particular point!) and many guests said it was the best they had ever been to.

Food glorious green food?

Fairtrade wine

The food was another sticking point.

We contacted the local food organisations to try to track down organic caterers but the nearest one was the other side of the county and although reasonable, didn’t include service or tableware, which would add considerably to our tight budget.

At one point I found myself in tears as my mum apologised for not being able to afford organic – I felt terrible, it wasn’t supposed to be like this!

But we soon made up and went for a local company using local and seasonal produce who were also happy to serve Fairtrade tea and coffee, and our Fairtrade wine that we bought from the Co-op.

Let them eat homemade cake

Organic wedding cake
The cakes, however, were a different matter. I was lucky to have a keen cook for a fiancé who lovingly crafted these confections from fair trade and organic chocolate, dried fruits, butter, flour and sugar.

I must admit to being slightly nervous on the big day as his first attempt at the chocolate mud cake was a little uncooked in the middle…but it was perfect, and was gone in seconds – my poor new husband didn’t even get a slice!

Flower power
We did not think flowers would be a problem in April and went for tulips as they were seasonal and should have been readily available. Unfortunately, our flower arranger had trouble finding local flowers that would be in bloom after a cold March and that would hold up throughout the day without falling apart. In the end we had a combination of local flowers and Holland’s finest.

Church wedding flowers

The flowers in the church, however, were completely local and beautiful – picked from the congregation’s gardens!

The real petal confetti that we bought especially for the occasion inevitably got left at home for our grand exit from the church but was rescued for the reception when we got pelted with the stuff. I’m sure there are still bits of it in my hair now!

Tree free bureaucracy

Recycled wedding invitations
Wedding planning can use up a lot of trees but the stationery was a great success for us: cheap and ethical too. Using banana and coffee paper from The Green Stationery Company, we made invitations, orders of service, place markers, guest comment cards and thank you cards. And they looked very stylish, though I say so myself!


And with invitations comes the issue of the gift list. For those who have everything, the charity gift list is a great option.

We didn’t have everything though and saw the gift list as an excellent one-off opportunity, not only to furnish our home with beautiful organic bed linen and a complete set of fairly traded crockery to supplement the chipped bowl and plate I’d had since my first term at university (!), but to showcase these wonderful products to our guests without preaching at them, and to support small producers and community cooperatives.

Unable at the time to find a gift list that would do all these things, we combined an online list with links to fair trade products on a variety of sites, with a selection of items from John Lewis such as recycled glasses and FSC approved salt and pepper shakers.

Divine chocolate eggs

One of the yummy bits of the planning was choosing chocolates for the favours. By the time the guests sat down, we knew it would be quite late so a bit of chocolate to tuck into would be welcome – especially if it was Fairtrade! Buying the Divine chocolate mini eggs wholesale made it very reasonable and at the last minute, my mum and dad got out the sewing machine and made little cloth bags to hold them. We have since discovered that they are being reused; one guest is using his as an I-Pod cover!

Ethical wedding bridesmaids

The Dress
Of course, the question on everyone’s lips whenever the word wedding is mentioned is, ‘What did she wear?’. ‘The Dress’ was probably the biggest challenge and a story in itself so I won’t go into it in too much detail now. Suffice it to say, I spent a lot of time trying to find a dress made with organic and fair trade fabrics and found them through the extremely helpful Greenfibres in Devon.

This was to dress myself and my 6 (yes 6!) bridesmaids and originally my husband’s suit as well.

But the dressmaker soon realised that the dresses were quite enough work on their own and my fiancé and his groomsmen went down the reuse and recycle route and hired their suits.

Despite the trials and tribulations and the worry that the dresses would not be finished on the day, with my mum’s help, they were and everyone thought we looked lovely (which we did, of course!).

Beyond skin ethical wedding shoes

We were all accessorised with wonderful organic silk wraps from aptly named local company ‘Wonderful Wraps’ who also helped us with cups of tea and reassurance – and transport – when we thought the dresses would not arrive on time!

And to complete the outfit, it had to be vegan shoes from Beyond Skin, created especially for the occasion and adding a bit of glitz to the day with their golden sparkle!

A dream day

Wedding rings
When it was all over, we sat back and relaxed and agreed we couldn’t have had a more perfect day. When we exchanged our white gold rings, we were happy to think that in a way we were sharing the moment with the small family business in Mexico who had crafted them, thanks to the London-based fair trade jewellery company, Silver Chilli, which provides a marketplace for their wares.


The service was beautiful and the choir brought tears to everyone’s eyes with their exquisite singing – and there was laughter as the vicar did his comedy act! Rain in the morning cleared for wonderful sunshine as we left the church. The food at the reception was delicious and the swing band in the evening had everyone up on the dance floor – even my granny! And the whole day was beautifully photographed by my brother and his girlfriend (their present!) on their digital camera – so no disposables on the table and no wasted film.

Honeymoon heaven After the big day, the honeymoon. Ok – we flew – I admit it. But it really was a once in a lifetime experience and as it was only the second long haul flight I’d taken in my life (the first to visit my now husband who had inconsiderately gone to work in the USA for 6 months!) I felt I could cut myself some slack on this special occasion.

Two weeks in Costa Rica, a complete surprise to me as my husband arranged it all and I didn’t find out where we were going until we got to the airport. He had done his homework though and the places we visited had featured on for their environmentally friendly practices and their contribution and commitment to the local community – and as if that wasn’t enough they were amazing too!

And finally… Writing this after 2 years of working on, investigating all the issues and chatting to brides and grooms with great inspiring and innovative ideas for creating an ethical and green wedding, I can see how if we were planning it all over again, we could have made it even greener!

However, although we hadn’t necessarily achieved everything on our ethical wedding checklist, we had tried and for us that was what it was all about. Now we just want to make it easier for everyone else! Originally published in: Lifescape Magazine