INDEX chats with Laila Al-Yousuf on her Sustainable Wedding

Laila Al Yousuf, Senior Interior Designer – Perkins + Will...

A senior interior designer with Perkins+Will who was awarded with Young Designer of the year at the 2014 CID awards and is currently listed on Interior Design Magazines Top 50 two years in a row.

Laila Al-Yousuf, joined the Pringle Brandon Perkins+Will team in early 2011. Raised in the U.A.E, but educated in the U.S., Laila brings a unique design insight into local customs and heritage along with the exceptional ability to blend this with international design. Her freshness and untamed spirit drives her to continually push boundaries, reveling in totally understanding a client and "getting into their heads". 

We had a chat with her on her Sustainable Wedding with Jonathan Bannister.

1) You opted to have a completely sustainable wedding. Why was this something you wanted to do?

Sustainability is a hot topic in our industry, but it is important to realize this is more than a trend. As responsible designers, we have an obligation to consider the impact that we make as a result of our designs. People can often be quite intimidated by the word, but actually even the smallest modifications to our lifestyle would have a great effect in the long term. It was within the first month of being engaged that I started to wonder what impact weddings have on the environment, and the statistics were so staggering that it just seemed like the natural choice for us to do whatever we could within our wedding preparations to make responsible choices. Then it was just a matter of research and creativity to bring it all together.

2) Is wedding wastage known to be quite high? If so, in what areas (food? Decoration? etc)?

The wastage in weddings is really across all areas, unfortunately. The average wedding produces 66 tons of CO2, and 500 pounds of garbage. In fact, in one day, a wedding produces the equivalent emissions 5 people would generate over the course of a year.

So much of the issue is that everything has a one day lifespan ie. flowers, food, clothes, decorations. I spent quite a lot of time reading everything I could, but the greater impact was for me to share what I learned so I set up an Instagram page ( to hopefully inspire other couples. Just think about the carbon footprint of each item. Local choices will always be best. Think about flowers that are in season where you are, food that is locally grown. Vintage dresses, or bridal party clothes that can be used again. Couples often think they need one set of decorations for the ceremony, and another set for the reception but with the time between, you can shift decorations and use them in a creative way at the reception. What you will end up finding is that the sustainable choices will also have a positive impact on your bottom line.

3) So how did you counter this? What were the alternative approaches you took to allow your wedding to be sustainable?

From start to finish, we tried to think of everything we could possibly do. Couples often send out printed save the dates, and printed invitations, but when was the last time you kept one of those from a wedding? Today, people want to refer to a website or receive something digitally so this was an easy first choice for us that also saved money. It is better to have the ceremony and reception in the same place to save on carbon emissions between one place and the next if you can. Our ceremony was in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney and we chose to have our reception at the Deckhouse Woolwhich, but to limit the emissions, we arranged to transport all our guests across the harbor on two boats rather than each of them taking their cars across. Daytime functions will cut down on your electricity costs, and you could use dim lighting and candlelight at the reception which lends itself to mood lighting.

Probably the most unconventional choice for us was choosing to have no flowers at our wedding. We didn't like the idea of starting a life together with the death of something else. We used plants instead, which meant that everything could be replanted and we just shifted the potted plants from the ceremony to the reception. The bouquets were all succulents which was actually really unique and perfect against the Botanic Garden backdrop. We then shifted the bouquets to the reception and used them as the decor on our sweetheart table. After the fact, the bouquets and plants were donated to my husband's grandmother's retirement community and a few were planted in my in-laws garden. We love the idea that a token from our marriage will always be in the backyard of the house that he grew up in and we can watch them grow over the upcoming years.

There are so many choices for bridal party attire. If you have your mother's wedding gown, wear that or another vintage piece. Otherwise, there are websites that sell ethical trade dresses, or even designs that are two pieces that you could wear as separates later. We opted to make all the clothes with a tailor shop in Dubai. I selected the fabric for the bridesmaids but gave them the choice to pick any dress style they liked so they could use the dresses for more than one occasion. We made the groomsmen suits here in Dubai as well and I've seen from Facebook that some of our groomsmen have used the suits again already!

With regards to food, buffets are the most wasteful and there are so many regulations on food that generally venues don't allow you to donate leftover food to homeless shelters. You could opt to compost but this can be tricky to arrange. We chose to do plated dinners but limited to two dishes and then we did an alternate plating arrangement. We knew the exact number of guests that would be in attendance on the day and therefore we were able to control the amount of food. It is about quality not quantity. Guests won't mind if they don't have an infinite number of choices, but they will mind the taste if it isn't good. All water was served in jugs rather than bottled water, there were no straws, and rather than serving a dessert then our cake, we opted to have the cake as the dessert. Vegetarian meals are actually by far the best choice for sustainable weddings but this is often too extreme for couples. Again, the point is to do everything within reason, and for what makes sense for you.

We also opted to not give any favors or receive any gifts. I know this was a very unconventional choice as well, but we decided we didn't need 15 toasters. We are very blessed to have all that we have, and we wanted to use our wedding as a way of spreading love so we asked our guests to support charities instead.

The key is there is an alternative to every "traditional" decision and Pinterest is actually a great resource to get ideas from.

4) On your wedding website (which is such a great idea by the way!) you describe some of your wedding plans as “crazy”. Can you share some of these with us?

Weddings are not just about the couple that is getting married. They are a celebration of love, and the union of two families. I think of myself as a hippie sometimes, and if I could have, I would have had no meat, no flowers, no invitations, baked my own cake, and had a dress that wasn't a wedding dress. We had meat, and someone else made the cake, but we did everything else, and my dress was blush pink instead of white so I would actually wear it again! By the way, my plan with the dress is to actually re-sell it and donate the money to charity, but there are even several websites where you can donate dresses also.

5) How difficult – or easy! – was it to organise a fully sustainable wedding? Were there any unexpected challenges along the way?

Not difficult and actually really fun! I'm a designer, and I love a challenge but actually there is so much on the web if you are out there looking for it, and I did my best to put as much information onto my Instagram page as I could.

Try to rent as much as you can rather than making items bespoke and think about a second life for each item. The one hiccup that we had was to do with our place settings. Because we opted to have nothing printed at the wedding, we had mostly chalkboards or timber palettes used as signage that could be re-painted. The only paper item was our place settings and we opted for seeded paper, which can be planted after the fact. Australia has very strict rules on what can be brought into the country so these were confiscated (good thing I wasn't arrested before my wedding!). I went to a local stationary store, purchased recycled paper and hand wrote each of the place settings (thank you, bridesmaids!)

In the end, the greatest feedback that we got from people was how personal everything was. Because we had researched the best choice for each item, we put a lot of thought into each choices that we made and since so many of these were not traditional, it really reflected who we are as a couple.

6) You’re committed to the Surge project. Did you involve this in your wedding in any way?

Yes we did, in two different ways. One was a nice surprise touch by my husband. I'm Emirati/American, and my husband is Australian so we hadn't really thought of the logistics of our union! A lot of people couldn't make the trip from Dubai or from America, so my husband arranged for video messages to be sent across and they were compiled into a beautiful video that he surprised me with at the reception. A part of the footage was from a community that Surge supports in Uganda wishing us well on our wedding. Besides that, guests opted to support this community in Uganda and as such we are constructing three wells and a bathroom block at a local school in honor of our wedding. We have already received some beautiful letters and photos from the community thanking us for sharing our love. In fact, we are traveling there this weekend and we love the fact that what was one day for us will make a lifetime of impact on this community.

A lot of people who know me also know that since I first traveled to Uganda two and a half years ago, I've been wearing a string bracelet with the Ugandan flag colors as a daily reminder of the people of this community. You wouldn't believe the amount of concerned voices over whether I would take this off on my wedding day. I've worn it for so long, the hippie side of me has developed a superstition convincing myself that removing it would be bad luck at this point. It wasn't on my wrist during the ceremony, but it was pinned to the inside of my dress! The people of Uganda have been with us on every step of this journey and I wasn't taking it off on the day.

7) How happy were you with the final outcome?

It would have been interesting to have somehow measured what impact we had in comparison with the statistics that I found at the start of this journey. What really matters the most is that through this whole process, people knew what we were attempting to do and without even realizing it, starting paying attention to the choices they were making so it seems that we made an impact on people's daily lives as well and hopefully through the Instagram page, and this article, other couples might be inspired to do the same.

8) What would be your three tips to help anyone bring sustainability into their big day?

First a general tip to any couple who might be daunted about planning the wedding, or in the middle of all the stress now, someone gave me a tip at the start of our journey that stayed with me the entire time:
This is one small period of your life and though it might seem stressful at the moment, you can't get this moment back, so rather than stress, enjoy every moment.

1. Set a budget and stick to it. It is easy to get overwhelmed with all the options when planning a wedding. Think: "Do we really need it?" This will help reduce the amount of waste that you generate, and will also reduce your bottom line.
2. Consider the carbon footprint of the items that you incorporate. If it had to travel to you, it had to be packaged to get to you. Consider "What journey did this item take to get to me?" This is where local choices will always be best if possible.
3. "Can this item have a second life?" Try to rent or use as many items that can be used again for another purpose.

Ultimately, set reasonable targets for yourself and don't overwhelm yourself with the process. Keeping these three questions in mind when making decisions will already have a large impact on how green your white wedding can be!

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