Nice Day for a Green Wedding

The prospect of environmentally sound nuptials sends a BusinessWeek editor on a whirlwind tour of eco-fashion options

I need to set a few things straight: I don't have Birkenstocks and I don't stock seitan (gluten meat) in my refrigerator. Those feel like real badges of eco-cool. But adopting them would mean that I would have to learn how to cook and my heels might get cold. Yet somehow, I have catapulted myself beyond all those environmentally responsible emblems right into looking for an eco-conscious wedding dress.

Talk about priorities. And it's not like I don't already have a wedding dress. I can hear all of you muttering that green mantra: reduce, reuse, recycle. But here's the thing: I can't eat or dance in the dress I have. And I didn't buy it. When my grandmother closed her bridal shop five years ago she insisted on giving me a dress. Let's not discuss that there wasn't a prince charming on the scene. So I picked out a dress online that my grandmother could order directly for me, and presto, it arrived and was immediately stuffed in the closet.

Until this year, when I got engaged, dragged it out, and put it on. That’s when I realized that the adorable beaded bodice and cap sleeves aren't designed for movement. They're designed to be adorable.

It Started with McMansions

Why an environmentally friendly wedding dress? It all came down to watching expensive McMansions shouldering aside the corn and dairy cattle in the county where I grew up. They're huge and use a lot of energy and raw building materials. I am not judging the people who buy these homes. I enjoyed blithely ignoring all these climate change issues as much as anyone. But McMansions crystallized for me the notion that we have to be aware of the impact our everyday actions have on the environment.

McMansions led to planning a wedding where we tried to make the bigger purchases as environmentally friendly as possible. We opted for locally raised flowers and beef for the meat eaters at the reception. We bought recycled paper for the save-the-date cards and invitations. Instead of gifts, we're asking our friends to donate money to charities.

That left my dress, which led to lots of online shopping, a surprising solution to the dress issue, and the discovery of an even larger world of environmentally friendly clothing than I had imagined. It's all out there when you start to look, everything from cute lingerie to chic designer wear in organic cotton, bamboo, and silk/hemp blends.

Shopping Advice By Blog

I thought finding an eco-wedding dress would be hard. Instead, it turned out to be ridiculously easy, thanks to Google (GOOG) and other brides who had already trod this ground and blogged about it. I started first with Conscious Clothing, which has about a dozen original frocks in hemp or silk/hemp blends that cost between $700 and $1,200. Though beautiful, nothing really struck my fancy. Another favorite among eco-brides online is Faernyn's Grove. One look at their bustier-inspired line, though, was all I needed to realize that their fashions would be a no-go with my Southern relatives.

My hemp-loving niece, meantime, uncovered Threadhead Creations, which offers six different custom-made hemp and silk/hemp blend dresses that run between $385 and $795. The one dress I liked seemed just a little too formal. I plan to wear the dress my grandmother gave me for the ceremony and the pictures and then change into something that lets me kick up my heels.

Distracted By Hemp Denim

That meant searching further afield, which seemed exhausting. So I hit a few shops online and stopped by a few others in person to look at denim for a treat. Okay, so organic jeans I pretty much knew about already. Denim's ubiquitous, so no surprise that organic denim is on the rise. Edun (founded by U2 singer Bono's wife Ali Hewson), Del Forte, and Loomstate sell hip jackets and jeans that are made entirely or partially out of organic materials. But starting at $150, they're pricey. I was interested in something that was less of an investment. Levi has $59 eco-Organic jeans, but they only contain a smidgin of organic cotton.

The best I could find was Rawganique, which has two styles in hemp and organic cotton under $100.

Maybe smaller items, like say, lingerie, would turn out to be cheaper and more amusing. Ciel and Enamore have cute lines of bra, panty, and camisole confections made up of different combinations of silk, hemp, soy, and organic cotton for between $45 and $85. And they sport enough lace to make them vavavoom! Made in Britain, they can be harder to find in the U.S. but online shops such as the Natural Store, and New York City stores such as Kaight, carry them.

But enough distractions; back to the dress hunt. It's time to go haute couture. Or at least eco-fashionista. Danish designer Peter Ingwersen makes sleek use of organic cotton in his Noir Illuminati line, sold at Neiman Marcus. The fitted black pants are gathered at the cuff and the sophisticated ruffled shirts come in black and white and are paired with tightly tailored jackets. The U.S.'s Linda Loudermilk's spring line is more playful. She uses sweet sheer yellow and white polka dotted fabrics for shirts and dresses with beautifully gathered ruffled cuffs. But of course they cost designer prices, running between $500 and a $900.

The Best Bet: Rent A Dress

I also checked out Anna Cohen and Stewart + Brown online. Cohen is a classic for work and play with nice pencil skirts, modern tailored suit jackets, and a drape dress in soy, hemp, and bamboo. Stewart + Brown's spring collection is more relaxed and has darling summer slip dresses along with basic camisoles and tees.

It was around this time, at what turned out to be the end of my search, that I began wondering whether it made sense to buy organic. According to the Organic Trade Assn., cotton uses about 25% of the world's insecticides and more than 10% of the pesticides. A recent Cambridge study found that over the lifetime of a shirt, a polyester shirt uses less energy than a cotton shirt to make and clean. However, you can mitigate this impact by using lower washing temperatures and by air drying clothes. So on balance, it still seemed to make sense to buy organic.

The Cambridge study, though, pointed out what I knew at the start of my search: The best bet, really, is to reduce, reuse, recycle. That means buying fewer pieces of clothing and buying things secondhand. The study even evoked a market for leased clothing. For the moment, that might seem farfetched for everyday duds. But it made me think back to my grandmother's shop, where men rented tuxedos. A quick Google search, and I had learned that it's fairly easy to rent bridal dresses these days. More stores have recently popped up in New York City that do this and I have checked a few of them out online. Now, I just have to jump in the car, er, take the subway I mean, and see what they have to offer.

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