Conscious couples say ‘I do’ to eco-friendly weddings

MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN: Venue costs for couples who wed at the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy will go toward conservations efforts across WNC. Photo courtesy of SAHC

The coming of spring means love is in the air, and in Asheville, that signals the start of another busy wedding season. Last year alone, Asheville was the site of more than 4,000 nuptials, according to The Wedding Report, an online market research company that compiles data from across the country. But while beauty and romance are typically the focus, these festive events can also generate a hefty carbon footprint.

Kate Harrison, who wrote The Green Bride Guide, estimates that the average wedding can produce 400 pounds of trash and more than 60 tons of carbon dioxide. That’s leading some couples to think about going green when they go matrimonial.

“Weddings are large events that produce a lot of trash, for sure,” says Arica Haro, director of events at Olivette, a 346-acre planned community that also serves as an eco-friendly wedding venue. “But we are in the mecca of wedding vendors and opportunities, so I would say shop your vendors, find out their practices and find like-minded people to collaborate with on your wedding.”

Beyond confetti

Olivette, which sits just north of Asheville in Woodfin, includes about 40 acres of organic vegetable, fruit and flower farmland, notes Haro, and local caterers can incorporate that farm-fresh food to create a hyperlocalized wedding experience.

“We’re a fully functioning organic farm, so we encourage brides to look to us to get that full farm-to-table feel of everything coming right from Olivette,” she explains.

And with the French Broad River “less than a stone’s throw away,” she continues, it’s important to avoid using harsh chemicals and pesticides that could end up in the river. Instead, the venue opts for nontoxic cleaning and pest control products.

“We’re very mindful about the water quality,” says Haro, stressing that the goal is to keep Olivette’s Rosebay Park “looking pristine without harming the French Broad that’s right by it.”

Andy Owensby also knows a thing or two about the challenges of maintaining an environmentally conscious venue. Owensby, who owns The Cabin Ridge in Hendersonville, says that creating an environmentally sound wedding requires a lot of elbow grease plus some help from Mother Nature. The family-run, seasonal wedding facility harvests about 5,000 gallons of rainwater annually — enough to run two bathrooms during the season and provide water for the flowers and grounds.

“If I have 100 guests, it takes approximately 500-600 gallons of water,” Owensby explains. “It’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of attention that has to be given to all of that, but it all works well.”

Despite its rural setting close to Chimney Rock State Park, notes Owensby, Cabin Ridge’s rustic pavilion boasts solar panels that make it energy efficient without limiting wedding day fun.

“I think people are pretty surprised when I say there’s solar here,” she reveals. “I’ve had like three DJs tell me that it’s the purest power they’ve ever used because they don’t have any variation” in the current.

Stop and smell the roses

A less obvious environmental impact of weddings, however, is something most folks might simply see as a salute to nature.

“About 80% of the flowers we consume in the U.S. are imported, usually from South America,” says Niki Irving of Flourish Flower Farm in Asheville. Before making their way into the hands of a bride, she points out, “They’ve traveled thousands of miles and used however many gallons of fossil fuels.”

To accommodate that, she explains, most imported flowers are harvested anywhere from weeks to months before they’re transformed into romantic flower crowns or groomsmen’s boutonnieres.

“They’re not very fresh. I don’t know if you’ve ever bought flowers at the grocery store, but they look very pretty, and you think they’re going to open up, but they have to spray them with so many chemicals to keep them alive for all of those weeks that they’re never going to open,” Irving maintains. “When you buy local flowers, they’re harvested fresh, so it’s a very, very different product.”

Emily Copus, who runs Carolina Flowers in the quaint town of Marshall, agrees, stressing that the environmental and social costs of the pesticides and chemicals those imported flowers require are not reflected in the price. “Although the flowers may be cheap in a big-box store, it’s cheap because there are all these global issues with fuel and labor that are kind of out of whack.”

There may also be concerns about exposure, notes Copus.

“There are a lot of photos right now where workers are packaging roses and things like that in full protective gear: massive orange gloves and face masks. We don’t think as much about what goes into their production as we might with food, but you do put flowers near your face and next to your body, and kids touch them,” she points out. To ward off pests, she continues, her farm relies as much as possible on natural products such as neem oil.

For Copus, though, buying local also means buying seasonally. And while this necessitates greater flexibility on the couple’s part, she believes it also helps create a deeper experience.

“We encourage people to do flowers that are in season because they have a more authentic feeling,” Copus explains. “We talk a lot about sense of place in our business and how we can communicate and support our Appalachian roots. I think people who are coming to Asheville to get married, they’re coming to experience the mountains and Appalachia and the beautiful nature that we have here, and buying local flowers is an extension of that.”

In addition, says Irving, couples concerned about discarding fresh-cut flowers after only a few hours of use also have the option of donating them. She partners with a community organization called the Power Flower Project, which picks up the flowers after an event and distributes them to schools, hospitals or simply via random acts of kindness.

“A lot of our brides love that because sometimes they’re traveling and can’t take them home,” Irving reveals. “I would hate to throw them away, so it’s so great to be able to give these flowers another life.”

Down on one knee

Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but for decades they’ve also been embroiled in ethical

PUT A RING ON IT: While diamond rings may be traditional, jewelry designer Lauren Moody invites couples to get creative when choosing engagement rings. Photo courtesy of Fox and Beaux Boutique

controversies concerning child labor, human rights abuses and even war. Nonetheless, diamond mining remains a more than $80 billion global industry, according to a 2018 report from the De Beers Group, an international diamond company.

Younger people may be moving in a different direction, however. Jewelry designer Lauren Moody of Fox & Beaux Boutique in downtown Asheville says her decision to work only with “conflict-free” diamonds stemmed in part from the demands of socially conscious customers.

“Often these customers are well aware of the social and ethical issues of the past, and they want to be sure they are being as responsible as possible when purchasing diamonds,” says Moody, who specializes in custom rings for weddings, engagements, anniversaries and other special occasions.

The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, she explains, is an international attempt to divert the flow of money to rebel military groups that seek to delegitimize United Nations-recognized governments in Africa and other diamond-producing areas. Implemented in 2003, it employs strict guidelines and sanctions to regulate the diamond industry. Thanks to these efforts, notes Moody, 99% of the diamonds in the marketplace are now considered conflict-free.

“Many people are relieved when they learn how successful it has been and that this isn’t really something they need to worry about anymore,” she says.

But Moody also cites the growing popularity of less traditional gemstones such as Montana blue sapphires, rubies and tanzanite, as well as alternative forms such as sliced, raw or salt-and-pepper diamonds.

“You don’t have to buy a diamond!” she exclaims. “Using these stones is a great way to show your uniqueness and style, while often spending a lot less than you would on a white diamond.”

Love at first sight

And for conscious couples with a love of the outdoors, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy now offers a way to channel wedding expenditures toward preserving the area’s natural beauty.

The nonprofit, which has preserved more than 75,000 acres of farmland and scenic beauty in the North Carolina and Tennessee mountains since 1974, recently opened its Community Farm to the public for eco-friendly weddings. Located just 10 miles outside Asheville in Alexander, the educational property features 100 acres of sustainable farmland, more than 3,000 feet of restored streams and a shortleaf pine reforestation project. But the environmental benefits don’t end at the property line: The venue fees help fund conservation efforts throughout the region.

“Asheville is a huge place for weddings, not just for people that live here but really for everyone that’s coming from afar,” notes Lauren McTigue, the conservancy’s nature experience director. “We just thought, ‘What a cool concept for you to have your wedding [help protect] the landscape that you love.’”

The money also supports educational programs such as partnerships with the YMCA and local schools that aim to encourage youths to get outside and develop a passion for the outdoors.

Another educational effort, the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion program, involves “going into the community to learn about people who don’t get out into nature and what they need from us,” says McTigue. “We just like the thought of putting people into a place where they can have an experience that hopefully makes them love and feel something for the nature surrounding them.”

Couples don’t have to sacrifice aesthetics in the name of conservation, either, stresses McTigue. Whether it’s spring wildflowers or deep purple grasses and evergreens in the fall, the Community Farm provides a beautiful wedding backdrop.

But to be able to enjoy a splendid setting while also doing good is an unbeatable combination, she maintains.

“We’ve had such great feedback, and I definitely think that part of it is that their money can go toward conservation. That’s huge, especially for folks who live around here. These are the mountains that we play in, and it’s almost hard to play in these mountains on a regular basis and not touch land that our organization had a part in preserving.”

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