The term ‘ethical marriage’ is in some ways as contradictory as say ‘sexy foot bath’ or ‘ingrown hairs welcome’. And yet, after years of railing against the marital-industrial complex, I still wanted to give it a try. When my partner and I made the unlikely decision to marry after seven years of living together and nearly five years of co-parenting, we both wanted to remain as environmentally friendly, cost-effective and ideologically sound as possible. If you’re expecting rings woven from clipped toenails and a wedding meal out of a garbage can, I’m sorry to disappoint you. But the whole thing cost us about the same as my parents’ wedding in 1992 and the only thing we bought new was the wine. And we had that delivered by bike.
Our wedding consisted of two parts. First there was the legal part: as the first few months of our relationship took place almost entirely at locations along the 38 bus route, it seemed appropriate to do so at Hackney Town Hall in east London. So my parents, partner, son and I all took the train from Oxford to the tube carrying our wedding gear in backpacks and holdalls. I changed in the toilets of a cinema across the street, my ex-boyfriend and his wife were added to our Covid-safe list of 14 guests, my son lay down in the middle of the carpet and chatted loudly to himself during the ceremony to stave off his inevitable four year boredom and wore an outfit I had made for a grand total of £8. Including underwear.
The average price of a wedding dress in the UK is somewhere in the region of £1,300, according to an army of websites dedicated specifically to the fine art of makeup removal for their readers. I made five wedding outfits for a total of £29. The first, for our legal department, was made from a light apricot fabric I bought at a market in East London: I sewed three gold hearts onto the front – one for my partner, one for my son and one for me. I made a veil out of a 1 pound section and a headband from a charity store. My shoes are £1 from a flea market. After the ceremony we all headed around the corner to eat pizza and booze at a nearby pub before catching the train back to Oxford.
The second part of the wedding took place three weeks later and was a slightly larger affair. By that I mean we spent over £100 and it didn’t finish at 5pm. I really wanted to get married somewhere we could bike to as we are both virgins and can’t bike. And anyway, because as a fan of breathing and moving safely through the world, I would much rather walk, bike, or take the bus whenever possible. So I ended up emailing a Boy Scout troop who have a camp down by the river, next to an allotment garden where my friend Sharon learned to canoe in the 1970s.
It was perfect. There was a field for camping, a kitchen, a giant bell (because you never know), a big pink windsurf sail hanging on the wall, toilets, a kitchen full of mismatched tea towels, and it all opened up into a flat, muddy Section of the Thames dotted with willows and brambles. They let us hire it for two days for less than £1,000 and their only real request was that my partner and I consider volunteering as Scout leaders. I decorated the tables with sheets and curtains, plates, glasses, cutlery and vases, all purchased from charity shops near our home by bike. I filled the vases with grasses and wildflowers I’d picked next to the towpath the day before and my friend hung the room with beautiful colorful decorations used at a mutual friend’s memorial a few weeks earlier.
Just by coming to our wedding and eating from these tables each guest has probably accidentally donated around £2 to Emmaus, Oxfam, Mercy in Action, the Shaw Trust or our local children’s hospice, Helen and Douglas House. Did that mean kneeling in my garden in 34°C for the days before and after the wedding and washing what felt like 1,000 forks and wine glasses in one bucket? It did. But was it worth taking the whole lot back to these various charity shops to resell? I think so.
For this wedding I wanted outfits. Multiple outfits. I embroidered a white linen dress with the words “An Honest Woman” on the front. I made a veil by recycling the same headband from a charity shop and a strip of fabric I bought on my local high street, just a few doors down from Oxford’s only sex shop. The night before the wedding I was updating the BBC weather site like a compulsive gambler on a slot machine, willing the outcome would be different while knowing deep down that I was doomed. The forecast for our wedding anniversary, and indeed the previous three days, was 35°C. My sister got married in India when the temperatures were cooler. And so, with just a few hours to go, I decided to cut up one of our white sheets and turn it into a voluminous, short tent dress that I could sweat happily in without actually sticking to the furniture or, I hoped, fainting . I’d bought a white bikini off eBay for £4, realized it showed about 10% of my pubic hair, so quickly made a white lace cover-up out of a piece of fabric I originally thought might work as a cake topper to hold the fly away. Finally, not least inspired by Gram Parsons Nudie suit, I made a pair of pants and a top covered in applique flowers, hearts and our initials. The fabric came from a local charity that recycles fabric and other materials from companies that would otherwise end up in landfill. It cost me about £10 and it took me so long to hand sew all those bloody petals that I listened to the entire Jaws audio book in the process.
A party is not a wedding if you have nothing to eat, so I toyed with the idea of feeding all 100 guests alone (until I imagined myself standing in a Boy Scout kitchen, in gym shorts, surrounded by bowls of pickles and sacks of rice, when people arrived) I reached out to Damascus Rose – a social enterprise supporting refugee women in Oxford. We ate delicious Middle Eastern food served by a Syrian woman who, rather out of the blue, asked if she could give a speech mid-meal. My mum arrived from Cardiff with three layers of orange polenta cake which she then decorated with blackberries from the nature reserve behind my house and a figure my sister made of my partner and I in our new inflatable canoe. Another friend baked three sensational cakes as gifts and I, standing behind a folding table in a wet bikini (like many of the guests, I had just been swimming), served them to our overheated and shade-hungry guests. It was one of my favorite parts of the whole day.
When you’re messy, ambivalent about weddings, and anxious to do things ethically, there are inevitably things that get forgotten or overlooked. The 50 jam jars that I had diligently collected and washed over the past six months in order to fill them with tea lights in the evening remained hidden in a bag somewhere. The muggy temperature in the hall during the meal became so unbearable that neither I nor my mother could deliver our speeches (rightly everyone rushed out of the building and into the river after being slowly roasted for about two hours). I forgot my bike lights so had to recruit a crowd of cyclists to ride up the hill and collect the fries and mushy peas that were served at sunset.
But in the end I think we made it. A friend’s mother — a former midwife and committed feminist who is training to be a memorial service — brought us together for a small, informal ceremony we did ourselves, where I wept against my every intention. A group of children played handbells borrowed from another couple. Two old friends offered to take photos during the day and at times did so in their swim shorts. And my husband and I spent our wedding night in a tent, sleeping on either side of an inflatable mattress on which our four-year-old son slowly twirled like a Catherine wheel after forgetting to brush his teeth.
So is it possible to have an eco-friendly, ethical and cost-effective wedding? Only with hard work, lots of help from loved ones and by turning a blind eye to chaos. You know, kinda like marriage.