When the editor of Source invited a column for this sustainable weddings issue, I confess that my reply was flippant: “Can’t people just elope?”

In terms of low environmental impact, a courthouse wedding is hard to beat. But it ranks equally low on the romantic scale, being painfully pragmatic.

Where does the happy medium lie between the couple-and-clerk extreme and an overly choreographed wedding with legions of invitees? (The national average is a super-sized assembly of 135 guests.)

Limiting a wedding party to a dozen or so people, while a radical notion at first, might prove liberating. Not only do smaller groups produce less of an environmental footprint, they can generate a greater return on investment – more happy memories per dollar spent.

As unromantic as it may be, it’s worth considering economic as well as ecological sustainability when tying the knot. Spending on weddings averages roughly $30,000 in Maine (not counting honeymoon expenditures), nearly two-thirds of the annual median household income.

Spending that kind of sum on a single day strikes me as a set-up for buyer’s remorse. Even if the marriage does stand the test of time (and we all know the mixed odds there), it’s worth considering how many other happy memories those dollars might have bought in outdoor adventures, educational opportunities, weekend getaways and more.


Spending far less (and minimizing environmental impacts in the process) takes a change in mindset. The wedding shifts from being a large-scale production dependent on an army of supporting logistics personnel to more of an intimate party (whether you hold to a dozen people or two or three times that).

The smaller the party, the more participatory the event becomes. Consider asking guests to fill some of the roles that might have gone to paid professionals such as taking photographs, assembling flowers and providing music.

At our wedding, some guests simply spent the weekend visiting and savoring the place, while others pitched in with all sorts of logistics – erecting the tent, assembling dishes and even conducting the ceremony (it helps to have a cousin who’s a minister!). Contributing their talents to the festivities did not detract from their enjoyment of the wedding; it enhanced it.

Holding our wedding in a relatively remote setting (with no electricity or running water) forced us to simplify plans, trimming the guest list to 40, choosing an easy menu and encouraging casual attire. We crafted our own invitations and prepared most of the food ourselves in advance of the event – even picking the strawberries for shortcake. Some steps we took to minimize waste, like avoiding disposable dishes, did complicate the logistics, but shared time over the dish sink gave many a wedding guest time to get better acquainted.

If I had it to do over again (thankfully I don’t!), I’d simplify even further. Paring back the guest list is one of the easiest means to holding the wedding to a sustainable scale, particularly when one considers the carbon footprint of each guest’s travel. Inevitably, there’s family pressure to expand the list, but gently remind relatives that decisions about the wedding rest with the couple (more easily done if costs are kept modest and paid by the bride and groom). Unsolicited advice from family won’t end on the wedding day (particularly if you have children), so practice handling it tactfully but firmly.

Keeping weddings small makes it easier to create a celebration that is a “cash-in-hand” expenditure, avoiding the burden of new or added debt at the outset of married life. Even with a weekend-long event, we spent less than couples typically pay just for a wedding photographer and videographer.

Planning a small event can help keep expectations in line with reality. The “big day” may loom preternaturally large in the months leading up to a wedding, but it’s small potatoes in the scheme of a lifetime. You think you’ll pour over wedding pictures frequently and relive those moments, but you don’t. Life moves on – as it should – offering new learning, challenges and festivities.

Over the years since our wedding, I’ve been touched by the number of guests who have harkened back to some image or moment from that weekend. It left enduring impressions because the group was relatively small, the setting unusual and the celebration hand-crafted. Those who came that weekend did not simply “attend” a wedding: they helped shape a shared celebration.

Marina Schauffler, Ph.D., is a writer who runs Natural Choices (naturalchoices.com).

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