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You don’t have to be totally green, according to "Green Wedding" author Mireya Navarro. You should have the wedding you want. But the moment you start keeping green options in mind you’ll see that there are always alternative ways to do things.
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TODAY contributor
updated 2/3/2009 5:12:34 PM ET 2009-02-03T22:12:34

An expensive dress that’s worn once, invitations that are read and then tossed, leftover food that’s thrown out, flowers that are displayed and then discarded ... without considering the environmental impact of your celebration, the biggest day of your life could also have a major impact on the planet. And with more than 2 million couples making it official each year, the cumulative effect of all this merrymaking may be reason enough to add environmental awareness to your wedding to-do list.

But where to start? And what to give up? Mireya Navarro, a New York Times staff writer and author of “Green Wedding: Planning Your Eco-Friendly Celebration,” has some refreshing advice for couples who want to reduce the carbon footprint of their union: Don’t forget it’s a party. The couples photographed in “Green Wedding” are beaming just as brightly as those who didn’t treat guests to an all-organic menu, trade party favors for a charitable donation, or offset the carbon emissions of their out-of-town guests’ travel.

From the gift registry to the decor to the honeymoon and beyond, Navarro has taken on the challenging task of sifting through the products and services that are truly green — in a new and rapidly growing industry, it’s easier than ever to slap “eco-friendly” in front of a company name — and has come up with a list that will allow you to consider the earth without compromising your dream celebration.

Though I could have used her guidance two-and-a-half years ago when I was drowning in what I now realize were environmentally unkind wedding preparations, Navarro recently took some time to address a few of my green wedding questions.

Q: Wedding celebrations would seem to have an obvious environmental impact, but is there any data on the effect of these celebrations on the planet?

A: There are too many variables to try to quantify the impact, but here are some examples:

  • If you choose a venue whose kitchen recycles or composts all the event's trash, that would keep the trash from going to landfills and releasing methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

  • Companies that sell carbon offsets, like NativeEnergy, provide couples with online calculators to figure out the carbon emissions their traveling guests will produce when attending the wedding. If one single guest travels from California to New York and back for your wedding, that produces about 2 tons of carbon emissions. To get an idea of what that means, a NativeEnergy spokesman told me that would be the same as if you’d driven your car 4,000 miles or had run a room air conditioner for a full year!

  • The most significant impact green weddings can have on the environment is in their cumulative effect — in cutting out waste, in supporting green products and services, in setting an example for guests to follow a green path and in steering the multibillion-dollar wedding industry to shift to greener practices.

Q: In an industry that’s so new and rapidly expanding, how did you research products and services to find those that are truly green?

A: One problem is the lack of a seal of approval on most products and services. A lot of people claim they’re green but may not be green at all, and you want to make sure you’re giving your money to those who are like-minded.

What I advise is to go to each vendor’s Web site and look at its environmental policies. The transparent ones will brag about what they’re doing. And you can tell fairly easily if people know what they’re talking about just by asking questions: How far was it shipped? Where did you get this? Do you recycle your garbage?

The best way is to trust the company more than the product, and buy from companies that tell you why they are green. It may take a bit more time, but when you’re planning a wedding you’re researching anyway. This is simply taking the extra step of looking at the green practices of those you’re planning to buy from. There are also consumer groups that keep an eye on the market — Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices and Green America.

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Q: If you’re interested in greening just a few elements of your wedding, what should they be?

A: 1. Consider the location. You want to avoid having most guests traveling long distances to your wedding — those travel-related emissions are the first thing to minimize. Try to bring the wedding to the guests instead of other way around. If that’s impossible because you have family in California and in New York, maybe you have two small parties. I got married in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and then had a wedding party in my backyard in L.A. so my friends in the States could attend.

2. Try to go local when buying products and services. You wouldn’t want to serve an organic menu where the entree is salmon from Alaska when you’re in New York, or organic peaches from California if you’re in New York. Even though it’s organic you’re bringing it a long distance to your table. When thinking about saving emissions, think local. You’ll be contributing to local economy and you’re also avoiding lots of shipping. The “go local” premise can influence decisions re: menu, decorations and flowers.

3. Adhere to the green principles of reusing, reducing, recycling. More and more brides are seeing the wedding gown as a humongous expense for something they’re going to wear on one day. Go onto Craigslist.org to find dresses worn once. If you don’t want to buy a secondhand gown, borrow one. This can be a touchy thing, because some brides want to own a special gown. If you do buy a dress, be sure to do something with it after the wedding. There are organizations that raise money from the sale of wedding dresses.

4. Monitor your spending and consumption in general. We tend to go crazy with traditional celebrations like weddings because there is already a way that it’s done, and we tend to go along with that plan. But you can plan your wedding any way you want. A green couple will make sure they do what they can to have their dream wedding without major consumption. A good place to start is to keep the guest list as small as possible. Make your wedding a lovefest with guests that love you and care for you — people you want around you on your wedding day. And party favors are optional. I wouldn’t buy some trinket. A green favor would be something edible, like organic chocolate. Or many people donate in the name of their guests to causes they believe in. Couples should be creative and do things their way. They don’t have to adhere to any wedding rules.

5. Be as practical as possible (which usually leads to being green). When it comes to the registry, many people are getting married later in life and have already accumulated household goods. So, instead of registering for more things, many couples have guests donate to their honeymoon or to a down payment on a house. This is not a violation of etiquette if you give guests gift options — you may have an aunt who insists on buying you a vase — but you should always have a practical option for those who are game.

The purpose of my book is to make people think about doing things differently for their wedding. But I do understand that there are cultural and familial pressures. You don’t have to be totally green — you should have the wedding you want. But the moment you start keeping green options in mind you’ll see that there are always alternative ways to do things.

Marisa Belger is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience covering health and wellness. She was a founding editor of Lime.com, a multiplatform media company specializing in health, wellness and sustainable living. Marisa also collaborated with Josh Dorfman on “The Lazy Environmentalist” (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang), a comprehensive guide to easy, stylish green living.

Please note: Neither Marisa Belger nor TODAYshow.com has been compensated by the manufacturers or their representatives for her comments or selection of products reviewed in this column.

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