The inspiration for a successful, environmentally friendly luxury resort on Aruba’s Eagle Beach started from a love of nature and animals.
Ewald Biemans, originally from Austria, founded Bucuti & Tara Beach Resorts 25 years ago on the island paradise. With only 104 rooms, the eco-friendly hotel is situated away from the loud hotspots and high rise buildings on Aruba, but restaurants and shopping areas are accessible in the nearby capital of Oranjestad.
Bucuti & Tara Beach Resorts sits on 14 acres of white sand and has been called one of the few “Dream Beaches of the World.” This romantic, boutique-style hotel caters to adults only. It offers beach weddings, a professional wedding planner, and “green” weddings.
A Natural Resource
“I arrived in Aruba when it was pristine and clean,” says Biemans, who came to the island in the early 1970s. Since his arrival, there has been a huge influx of people on the now populous island.
“More people equals more garbage,” says Ewald, explaining how the island paradise began to degrade. Vacationers flock to Aruba all year because of the dry, Arizona-like climate; sunny weather; and calm, white beaches. Since tourism is Aruba’s only natural resource and accounts for a large portion of the nation’s income, it is especially important to keep the island clean.
“I thought, We need to do something about this,” says Biemans. Now, local authorities are enforcing rules to keep the island in order, which has resulted in improvements to the ecosystem. Hotels are encouraged to participate in programs to improve the local environment.
“We’re slowly getting there,” he explains, as he points out that everything on the island has to be imported.
An Innovative Ecopreneur
Biemans takes great steps to make the resort a better place for the island, its employees, and its guests through a variety of inventive means. “We are very happy and proud,” he says.
Some of Biemans’ initiatives at the resort include the following:
- Only organic cleaning products are used
- Employees carpool to work
- Motorized sports are discouraged and low-energy sports like windsurfing are promoted
- Air conditioners have sensors that adjust the temperature depending on if people are in the room
- Employees separate garbage, and 60 percent ends up recycled or reused
- Local beers are sold, and the bottles are returned to companies, who wash and reuse them
- Products are bought in five-gallon buckets and dispensers in the rooms for shampoo and soap are refilled
- Instead of plastic laundry bags, the resort supplies pillowcases
- Biodegradable cups and plates in the dining areas are made from sugar cane
- Sheets aren’t changed every day unless specified by the guest
- All paint is non VOC
“The only plastics in the hotel are the straws,” Biemans states proudly. In the future, he hopes to incorporate the use of solar power for public lighting and to control room temperatures on a central computer.
Since 1997, the resort has been honored with nearly 30 awards and recognition for environmental stewardship, sustainable tourism, beach cleanups, and environmental hotel management.
The resort was the first in the Americas and Caribbean to obtain ISO 14001 certification, which indicates that the hotel’s environmental management systems can identify and control its environmental impact. Additionally, the business is a charter member of the Green Hotels Association.
“People choose our hotel because of sustainability,” Biemans says. “They feel guilty about flying all the way to Aruba, but they feel better that they are staying at a sustainable hotel.”
The website also allows guests to purchase renewable energy credits to offset their carbon use. “It gives them a good feeling about staying in a resort,” he says. “They are conserving as much as they can.”
Biemans believes that guests consume less energy at the resort than they would be consuming at home because of the sustainable measures in place. And, for most guests, they stay in a room that is smaller than their house.
The resort is Green Globe Certified, a recognized mark for sustainable tourism. Eco-conscious visitors interested in the natural wildlife and native cuisine can purchase the green vacation package, which includes an outdoor view room, dinner prepared by local chefs, a guided hike, and a tour of the aloe factory.
Biemans preaches the importance of local involvement because items won’t be transported thousands of miles, local jobs are created, and local arts and crafts are promoted.
“We did a lot of things before ‘green’ was a common thing,” he says. “We’re going back 20 years. Now it’s the fashion to talk about it, but we started when it was unheard of.”
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
You can use eBay and Craigslist to buy anything from boats to aquariums to musical instruments. And when it comes to your wedding day, you can use them to buy your dress, centerpieces, or other décor — but huge Internet marketplaces make this task seem daunting. Some sites, like PreOwned Wedding Dresses, Recycled Bride, and Bride Share, and have narrowed the focus to make online shopping for gently used wedding items simple for brides-to-be.
PreOwned Wedding Dresses: Vera Wang and David’s Bridal All in One Place
After struggling to sell her wedding dress, Josie Daga was inspired to start a website to help brides with the same problem. Daga first attempted to sell her dress on eBay, but received $200 bids for her $3,000 gown.
“I had no intention of starting the site, but I couldn’t sell my dress!” says Daga, who launched PreOwned Wedding Dresses in 2004. Running the site is now her fulltime job.
Daga doesn’t think it’s difficult to convince brides to buy a used dress for their big day. “It’s a dress that’s only been worn ONE time — it’s not a big deal,” she points out.
With over 4,000 dresses and 125 designers — from Vera Wang to David’s Bridal — brides have a wide range of choices. About one-half of the dresses are listed at $1,000 or less, making the decision to buy used even easier.
For a bride considering selling her wedding gown, Daga suggests pricing it at 50 percent off its original cost — if it’s less than three years old and in good condition.
Selling time can take up to a year, but averages at 70 days, Daga notes. “A really hot dress, I’ve seen sell in a single day, though,” she says.
The listing fee for Daga’s site is $25, which helps pay for promotion. PreOwned Wedding Dresses is the top Google search result for “used wedding dresses.”
When buying a dress, Daga recommends Escrow.com for payment. It acts as an intermediary between the buyer and seller, offering protection for both parties.
A notable feature of the site allows users to save a list of their favorite dresses, which show up when they log on. If one of the dresses on the list drops in price, the user is notified via e-mail. It’s also easy to find the perfect dress because of the organized sections, like Dresses We Love, New This Week, Most Viewed, and Best Deals.
Besides dresses, Daga’s site also sells secondhand accessories.
Daga authors three blog posts each week. “I like to write about things that help you cut your budget without looking like it,” she says. Her blog features sections like Budget Ideas, Buying and Selling Safely, and Green Weddings. Emily’s Bride Blog appears on Wednesdays: A real-life bride writes about her experiences planning her upcoming nuptials.
One of Daga’s clever budget-cutting tips is to set tables for ten instead of eight. With fewer tables, there’s less cost for rentals and linens. Brides won’t have to worry as much about cutting their guest lists — and no one will notice the change.
The ecopreneur has trouble picking a favorite from the many dresses she’s seen on the site, and proclaims, “I’m a sucker for weddings!” She does mention a dress by Catherine Walker, a British designer who worked with Princess Diana.
People want beautiful dresses, no matter their financial circumstances. Daga says there’s “no question” that the negative economy has positively impacted her site. “The economy has helped people focus on practicality,” she says. “Buying a brand-new dress is impractical. After the recession ends, I hope the new sense of practicality lingers.”
Recycled Bride: One-Stop Shopping
Tracy DiNunzio lived in Mexico and attended the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende while working toward her master’s degree in fine arts for painting and printmaking. There, she was inspired by the locals’ outlook toward their personal belongings.
“It was a different culture,” DiNunzio recalls. “They look at stuff differently. They don’t throw things away. So, I stopped throwing away things that could be re-used.”
This increased awareness was an inspiration for her site, Recycled Bride. The site acts as a marketplace where brides-to-be can buy used wedding dresses, décor, and rings, among other items. Brides whose weddings have come and gone can sell their gently used items.
“I also launched the site because I wanted to do something with an environmental twist,” DiNunzio says. She likes knowing that brides who use her site feel good about what they’re doing. “For me, it’s something that’s very positive,” she comments. “It creates good karma and good energy around your wedding.”
The site launched in September 2009, and is expanding at a rapid-fire pace. Over 1,000 members now browse the more than 1,500 listings on the site. DiNunzio says that membership is more than doubling each month, and web traffic has been out of control. The first week of January saw more than 5,000 visitors.
Like Daga, she believes that the recession has impacted her site in a good way. She notes that she’s seen a lot of sellers. “More people want to sell their stuff to make money,” she says. “It’s a big motivator.” She shares Daga’s hope that once the economy rebounds, the trend toward buying resale items stays.
After her own 2008 nuptials, DiNunzio realized that she had way too much leftover stuff that she didn’t need. She ended up selling everything except for one of her two wedding dresses and her shoes, which she dyed black and wears all the time.
DiNunzio says that the most popular category on her site is wedding dresses. Wedding dresses are the most expensive item, so that’s why brides want to buy them used. A lot of women find beautiful, luxurious dresses they love but can’t afford. Instead of buying a new, cheap wedding dress, they look for a gently used luxurious dress.
DiNunzio also authors a blog on her site which was recently named a Top 100 Wedding Blog by BrideTide. There, she writes about environmental issues and provides tips for stylish, eco-friendly, budget-conscious weddings. She also writes about relationships and lifestyle.
She notes a recent study by the Environmental Protection Agency, which says that 44 percent of greenhouse gases are emitted from manufacturing and transporting non-food related products. Because of this, she says that when you buy a product, you should look at how much use you will get out of it. When you buy new items for a wedding, they will only be used once for about eight hours.
Bride Share: The Online Wedding Co-op
Dana LaRue started blogging about planning her budget-friendly wedding in May 2008 on The Broke-Ass Bride. She posted an idea about starting an online wedding co-op, and the interest from readers inspired her to launch BrideShare.net in July 2009.
BrideShare is set up like a social networking site. Brides create profiles to browse other brides with similar taste or in a similar location. Through these connections, they can then share décor, glassware, etc.
“The main point of the site is to facilitate those introductions,” LaRue says. Brides can also buy and sell items.
Brides who use this site are typically arranging their own weddings. With the recession, they also have to be more creative. “The trend in weddings is going toward people trying to express themselves,” says LaRue. “The best way to do this is to be involved in the wedding planning.”
LaRue sees a lot of brides trying to share small items like candles, linens, stemware, baskets, and paper for invitations. Some popular items she’s also noticed are lanterns and vases. She points out that buying in bulk is cost-effective.
Like Daga and DiNunzio, LaRue has also had brides list their wedding dresses for sale on her site.
“People are becoming less attached to keeping it forever and having their kids wear it,” she explains.
For her own wedding, LaRue was contacted by another bride whose wedding was scheduled two months later at the same venue. The other bride offered to share most of the décor items and split the cost. This ended up saving each bride about $2,000.
LaRue felt flattered that the other bride had approached her and liked the design ideas on her website. With that positive feedback and the money-saving opportunity a site presented, she decided to launch BrideShare. The site now has more than 2,000 members.
LaRue says she never found eBay or Craigslist to be very effective, because people misrepresent items, overcharge, and have hidden motives. But on a site focused solely on wedding planning, everyone has the same motives. It draws people in who are more likely to be trustworthy.
“The site creates a community,” LaRue says.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
When Matt White and his girlfriend decided to marry, they looked for wedding rings that were made in an environmentally responsible way. “We were aware that there were issues associated with gold mining, and we started looking for wedding rings that we could feel good about, that were made with responsible gold. We couldn’t find any. So we got married without any rings at all — and started greenKarat,” White said in an interview with Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL).
We contacted White after accidentally coming across his greenKarat website. We were intrigued by the beautiful designs, and by the fact that customers could actually send in old family jewelry to be re-crafted into new wedding bands. We also wanted to know what makes “responsible gold” different from other gold and why consumers need to know about it. What we learned gave us a whole new perspective on the romance (and responsibilities) of wedding rings. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
BPGL: I’ve always thought of engagement and wedding rings as romantic symbols of a couple’s love. But from what I’ve been reading on your website, it appears that they’re also a symbol of serious environmental damage. Why is gold so bad, environmentally speaking?
WHITE: The issue that my wife and I had been aware of about gold mining — and this really came to our attention as members of Sierra Club — is that separating the gold from the surrounding ore is very destructive to the environment. There are two methods used: The large-scale mining companies use cyanide. They dig the rock out of the mine or out of a pit, put it in a pile, then dump cyanide over the top. The cyanide separates the gold from the ore. Theoretically, the companies have a restraining wall that catches the cyanide to be used it again. But, as a practical matter, a lot of the cyanide escapes and gets into the waterways. It’s an extremely lethal poison.
The other method is used by the panners, the artisanal miners — there may be 20 million of them around the world. They obtain a little bit of gold, say, in gravel from the bottom of a stream. They use mercury to separate the gold, and a torch to burn off the mercury. A cloud of mercury rises into the air, poisons the miner, then settles into the water and bio-accumulates through the food system. It ends up in foods we eat, such as tuna.
The Wall Street Journal did a story a couple of years ago about a mercury-capturing program in Maine. This was a program with great intent. Their idea was, instead of the mercury going into the landfills, they would collect it. But as it turned out, there was a hole in the system; the mercury was exported and used by gold miners. So it ended up in the environment anyway. It’s a very nasty problem.
BPGL: How did you decide to get into the wedding ring business?
WHITE: We saw an opportunity. We decided there had to be a market for wedding rings made with responsible gold. So we devised the concept of greenKarat. It was based upon one very firm concept: We would be as honest as we knew how to be with our customers about what they were getting in their wedding rings. This is important, because in making jewelry, it is almost impossible — no, I’ll go ahead and say it: “It is impossible to make a gold wedding ring that is completely ecological.”
When you get into the realm of, “We’re pretty good, but we’re not perfect,” we felt that we needed to be as honest as we knew how to be, as transparent as possible with the customer. So we devised what we call the “Green Assay,” which basically is a disclosure of the ecological footprint of each of the designs that we make. It talks about each component of the ring, whether the gold is recycled, whether it’s post-consumer recycled, whether the alloy is ecological — they rarely are.
We talk about the components of the ring. There are little bitty components, for instance, the prongs on a ring that may hold a stone, typically are made in factories. And they are typically of better quality, because they are made in factories, but you are not going to find a factory that’s using ecological gold, or recycled gold. So that’s a component that’s not eco-friendly. So we went through each step of the process, we talked about whether the gold was refined in a refinery that was environmentally responsible, whether it’s ISO 14001-certified — ISO is an environmental certification — and what rules it actually complies with. We laid all of this out and, in the process, didn’t know at the beginning whether we were opening ourselves up to criticism. But it turns out that our niche, the people that we are marketing to, are very grateful for that information.
WHITE: Patagonia actually was quite an inspiration for us. We looked at them a lot as we were putting together the philosophy of the company and how we would do it. I’m very impressed with Patagonia.
BPGL: I’ll bet they’d be impressed with you, too. I’m looking at your Green Assay on the website. It’s a great idea.
WHITE: In the beginning, we had an arrangement with a refiner. We told them that we wanted recycled gold and the criteria that needed to be met. They set aside gold that met our criteria. We were very grateful, because the refining industry and the jewelry industry were not very receptive to the concept of what we were doing. It implied a criticism of them when we talked about the ecological issues. There were a lot of barriers in that way. So it was quite a breakthrough to find this particular refiner.
The gold that we were using in the beginning was a mix of post-consumer gold and post-industrial gold, and we didn’t differentiate. We soon came to realize, as in other recycling, that post-consumer really does matter. That’s because gold is so valuable that businesses don’t discard it. So, if there is scrap gold, waste gold, leftover gold, it all gets recycled. They’re all very careful to do that. And so, by using gold that has been “discarded” by a business — if I may use that term — you’re not really changing the dynamic of the industry.
We have estimated that there is enough gold already mined on the surface of the planet to feed the jewelry industry for the next 50 years. And this is important, because the jewelry industry drives the demand for gold mining. About 85% of the gold that is used each year is used by the jewelry industry. So this is where you’re going to make a difference. And that gold that is already on the surface of the earth and is laying dormant that we’re trying to get out with the recycling program is either going to be sitting in bank vaults as an investment, or it’s in people’s dresser drawers as unwanted or broken jewelry. So that has been the thrust of our program, to try and liberate the dormant gold that is in the form of old jewelry.
BPGL: I like the word “liberate.” It does seem that gold stuffed in a drawer is, in a sense, being held captive — often in jewelry that’s out of fashion or unworn for one reason or another.
WHITE: That’s where our myKarat program arose from. It allows customers to collect jewelry from friends and family and send it to greenKarat. They can do one of three things with it. They can either recycle it with us, and we give them a store credit for the value of the gold, or they can reuse the gold that they send in, if it has sentimental value — and for many people it does. Grandma may have passed away, but you have her wedding ring. This is a way for those molecules of gold in Grandma’s ring to go into your ring, which is a very potent symbol of family and continuity. And then, for some people, what they really want to do is to just donate that old jewelry to the benefit of an environmental organization; they can do that, too.
When you send in jewelry, we are essentially buying its gold content, although we don’t pay you cash. We offer a store credit. So whether you are recycling it, or reusing it in your own rings, you are still going to get credit for the value of the gold. If you wish to use that gold to make your wedding rings, but are willing to forgo receiving the value of the gold yourself, we’ll send a check to your favorite environmental charity.
BPGL: I saw that you recommend the Basel Action Network on your site, as a place to donate the value of your recycled gold?
WHITE: Basel Action Network (BAN) is very actively involved in the eradication of mercury. That, in fact, was their core project. They are very much involved in the issue of [stopping the export of] toxic waste. Computers are an excellent example. Computers go obsolete after just a few years. The way it has always been is that they would be put on cargo containers and sent overseas, where the computers would be burned or melted to get the valuable components. There actually is gold in a computer.
BAN also has been taking a look at ways to mine gold without using mercury or chemicals at all. We think they’re good guys. They’ve been supportive of us from the beginning. They are as ethically pure as anyone I’ve ever met — extremely stringent. And helpful to us in evaluating our standards, the refineries that we use. They came along, they asked a lot of hard questions. We think they’re good folks.
BPGL: I know a lot of people who have odds and ends of old jewelry sitting around. They’d probably like having the option of using it to support a group like Basel Action Network.
WHITE: We’re really excited about the myKarat program, because we think this is the key to permanent change in the way jewelry is made. There are three things that are really going for it: One is that if you wish to use the sentimental gold, it’s very romantic, and it fits perfectly with the concept of a wedding, and the commitment, and the gathering of friends and family to celebrate the commitment.
The second thing is that it makes economic sense, because you are reducing the cost of your wedding jewelry.
And the third is that it’s actually good for the environment. And so, we sense that the combination of these things will provide enough momentum that it will eventually change the wedding tradition and become a societal norm to hand down jewelry from generation to generation, to melt the gold and use it in the next generation’s wedding jewelry. It keeps the whole system working in a way that’s more sustainable.
BPGL: How popular is the myKarat program? What percent of your customers choose to do that?
WHITE: A fairly small percent, though it has been well received. We actually have a bridal registry. Instead of registering for people to give you gifts, you set up this registry, and people download the form and send in their jewelry. We receive packages of jewelry from all the family members, and we aggregate them, and let the participants know who has contributed up to this point. Then when they think they’ve got it all together, we start the process of refining their gold and making their wedding bands.
BPGL: If you have 14K mixed with 24K, and people send in a variety of karats, do they work if they’re mixed up?
WHITE: Let me back up and talk about the process of using recycled gold — and this is an important point. The gold that we use always starts out as pure. Except on a very limited basis by request, we never simply melt down gold and make it into a new ring. What we do is take old jewelry and refine it to take out all of the alloys — base metals, like copper and nickel — because they are what deteriorate over time. And if you simply re-melt it and make a new ring, you’re going to start to get porosity, and you end up with a poor quality product. So what we’re doing is actually refining the gold until it is pure gold. What we are making is, in fact, no different from the jewelry that would be made with gold that had been freshly mined. But it doesn’t have the environmental baggage associated with it.
BPGL: How do you refine it, if you’re not using mercury or cyanide.
WHITE: You do have to use the bad stuff to refine it, but you use a closed system that doesn’t allow it to escape. There’s no water that’s discarded. The air is all scrubbed. It’s a very, very careful process.
BPGL: How much input do your customers have on their design? Do you give them a catalog or do you let them present ideas to you?
WHITE: It’s pretty much an open slate. We say, “Send us pictures of anything that has an element that appeals to you. Send us written descriptions of anything that you would like to incorporate into your design. It’s really wide open. It may be just a hand drawing on the back of a napkin. If they have sent a drawing or a picture of their own, we typically will not render anything beyond that. We just make it as close as we can to their instructions. A lot of people do like to send their own art. It’s really kind of fun.
BPGL: Do people sometimes say to you, I want to use this diamond or this ruby or this whatever — and do you set those in their rings?
WHITE: Yes. That’s actually a very common request. A grandma’s ring is a very typical case, where a diamond or other stone from a parent or other relative gets incorporated into the new design. We are pleased to do that. That just fits so well with the sentimental aspect of the whole wedding process.
BPGL: I read that you provide synthetic diamonds if people want them. Do you also have other synthetics?
WHITE: We refer to them as “created gems.” We have diamonds, and we offer created rubies, sapphires, emeralds, alexandrite, opals…
BPGL: Obviously, in ecological costs, created gems are a huge improvement. How does the economic cost of a created diamond compare with a diamond that was mined?
WHITE: The created diamonds are going to be roughly in the ballpark of a high-quality natural diamond.
BPGL: In price or quality?
WHITE: Both. The diamond companies, and there are just a handful that make diamonds. By the way, these diamonds are optically, physically, and chemically identical to natural diamonds, so they are, in fact, diamonds — not diamond equivalents. It requires sophisticated laboratory equipment to be able to differentiate the created diamonds from the natural ones.
BPGL: Your website says that you won’t use Canadian diamonds. Why is that?
WHITE: The Canadian diamond industry is an interesting case. They decided before they had opened their first mine in Canada, that the image they were going to try to project would be one of social and ecological responsibility. But the reality is that they are mining these diamonds in very sensitive permafrost areas. They are damaging the ground. They are eliminating entire lakes. There is acid rock drainage from blasting that’s getting into the rivers and going hundreds of kilometers downstream. But they don’t talk about this.
It’s a constant drumbeat of how ecologically responsible they are. And they love to talk about how they don’t have blood diamonds. The blood diamond issue came to a head a year or two ago back when the movie [Blood Diamond] came out. While it’s true that there isn’t a civil war in Canada, it’s also true that they are pretty much taking advantage of the native peoples there. The aboriginal communities are not getting the benefit of this fantastic wealth that’s being dug up out of the ground. The big diamond companies are taking advantage of them, just as they have everywhere. Back in Africa, when diamond mining first got underway — diamonds have not always been part of the fabric of our society; it’s really rather modern — as the value of the land went up, the native peoples, who were farming the area where the diamonds were found, were being taxed out of their homes and off of their lands. The only way that they could remain in the area was to go to work for the diamond mines.
The history of diamonds isn’t just about funding wars, it’s also about taking advantage of people. It’s a very sad story. So we shun Canadian diamonds, although we will put Grandma’s diamond in any ring. And if someone wants to bring a created diamond that they bought from someone else, that’s fine; we’ll put it in our jewelry. But we are not going to put any freshly mined stone in our jewelry. We have to live with ourselves. We have to be able to sleep when we go to bed at night. And we can.
BPGL: Not everyone can say that. It’s worth a lot to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and not flinch.
WHITE: We believe it’s a good thing that we’re doing. And we’re dealing with a fun aspect of people’s lives. We’re helping people do what they want to do. There’s really no downside here.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
Green Weddings Begin with “Responsible Gold” (Top of Page)
As consumers opt for more earth-friendly choices at home, many are also requesting organic foods at restaurants. But to date, only one venue we know of provides brides and grooms with a fully organic wedding — and all in a setting as gorgeous as any fairytale. Located just outside Austin, Texas, the Barr Mansion is the only certified organic special events facility in the nation. We spoke with Melanie McAfee, co-owner of the Barr Mansion, along with her husband, Mark. At Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL), we were attracted to the McAfees because of the sustainable ideology on which their business is founded.
We asked Melanie about the process of going fully organic and what this means to their staff and their clients. But going organic isn’t the owners’ only consideration: They’re striving to buy locally — or at least in the US — and reduce their carbon footprint, all while offering wedding memories to last a lifetime. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
McAFEE: We started with some local produce. That led us to learn about the health of our food system. And that led me to organic foods. We just wanted to do more and more. We got to the point where we thought we’d take the plunge, and if we were going to do it, we might as well go the whole way.
BPGL: What did going “the whole way” to becoming an organic venue look like for you as far as the food service for your events?
McAFEE: It took me a little over a year to source everything out. That was real challenging. I had to drop all of my purveyors and start all over again. The typical purveyors that most restaurants and special events facilities utilize have next to nothing in organic products. Consequently, I had a lot of things come in through UPS and had to order many of them individually. There are a few Whole Foods-types of vendors, but they’re oriented to retail. For example, we can’t get 50-pound bags of powdered sugar for our wedding cakes. So we’re having to get those in retail packets, because there’s no wholesale demand for it.
I spent a year finding where to get everything. We still can’t get everything wholesale. But we can get everything certified organic. So that’s what we do.
BPGL: Besides powdered sugar, what was your greatest challenge as far as sourcing organic foods?
McAFEE: Probably the hardest was our wedding cakes. Even now, you can’t get certified organic food coloring, because there are so many nasty things used to create the colors. So we have to use just plant dyes. We’re limited in the degree of color. We let our clients know what colors we can do naturally, and they have to go with that.
BPGL: What about flowers? Do you buy most of your flowers locally or import them?
McAFEE: That’s a direction we’ve struggled with. We did find an organic rose grower, but they’re in South America. We push our clients as much as we can, but most clients do not want the Texas wildflower look. Some do, and we do it when we can.
BPGL: Do you use organic fabrics for your table linens?
McAFEE: We try to take our philosophy that we have with our foods, and more or less do the same thing with everything that we purchase. So, even though our organic certification is only for our food, we try to do organic and sustainable in everything else. That’s just something that we’re constantly evolving and learning about.
Our tablecloths, for example — there’s no linen company or service that does anything organically. So the first round of tablecloths, I sewed myself. The second round, I had sewn.
BPGL: Did you use certified organic cotton?
McAFEE: We’ve used certified organic cotton. We’ve used linen. We’ve used hemp. And there are lots of pros and cons for all of those. We’re maneuvering toward trying to make things also be American made. With our economy being in such shambles, that’s become an important element of what we think is sustainable.
In our first round of cloth — just to give an example of how we’ve transitioned — we were just going after certified organic cotton. It turns out that most of the certified organic cotton is either grown and/or milled in India. So we were getting Texas-grown organic cotton, but then they shipped it all the way to India to be milled. And then it came back. So we thought, “Oh, no. That’s not what we’re talking about.”
We’re now asking more questions. And this American-made requirement has been an interesting direction to move, because I’m finding out what they say on TV over and over — that our manufacturing is gone in the US. It’s been a real frustrating experience.
For example, in our latest project, we decided to re-wallpaper 75% of the house. I looked into wallpapers and found out that most wallpapers have volatile organic compounds [VOCs] in them, things you don’t want to breathe. Then I started looking at where paper wallpapers are made. Well, a lot of those come from England. I wanted it from America. There’s only one company in America that does sustainable papers that I could find.
What I ended up doing was decide to just design my own paper. Then we went through a period where we were getting craft paper from different companies all over America. We started experimenting with hanging it on cheesecloth, which is how our wallpaper was. Well, the 100% post-consumer paper just bubbled up. It wouldn’t work. Then, we decided to use liner paper, which is paper, but it’s virgin paper. So, what we’ve done is taken this paper and put it on the cheesecloth, then we’ve painted it with non-VOC paint that is made in the Austin area. Now, I’m negotiating with local artists to do designs on our painted paper. So, that’s what it means to try to re-wallpaper with this concept.
BPGL: Are you using organic wallpaper paste?
McAFEE: We looked into that, and we’ve got an “environmentally friendly” paste, but as far as making it from scratch out of wheat, the paperhanger convinced me not to do that, because we have such bug issues in Texas. He felt certain that, with silverfish and other bugs, it wouldn’t last. And we didn’t want to put chemicals in it so the bugs wouldn’t get it. In the end, we decided not to use a feed-grade paste. But we’re using a product that is VOC free.
BPGL: Now that you’ve got it figured out, are you planning to sell a line of wallpaper, perhaps, as a side business?
McAFEE: [Laughs.] No. It’s been a fun project, but I also see the potential challenges. This whole experience of going organic has really been interesting. I suddenly want to go into the manufacturing business, because I come across this continually with everything that we do. I see opportunities for manufacturing that are sustainable that aren’t being done.
McAFEE: With the recycling market cratering, we’re trying to ask our recyclers what they’re doing with their product and what else could be done with it. So, we started a Central Texas Zero-Waste Alliance. We’re trying to network with artists, recyclers, politicians, and concerned citizens about potential uses for products in our waste stream.
For example, we’re looking into different mulching machines to mulch some of our paper and yard debris and begin a compost operation. That’s one venture that might be a spin-off that we’re considering. And wine bottles — I’ve started looking into what temperatures, what kind of kiln you have to have to melt the bottles, what else can be done with them… I’ve talked to counter people who are utilizing glass cullet in a terrazzo type countertop. At this point, all of that stuff that happens in our area either comes from New York or very far away. Why aren’t we using our own glass to do some of this?
BPGL: Have you found someone to take your wine bottles?
McAFEE: We’re talking to Ecology Action of Texas. Come to find out, they’ve been more or less doing the same thing. They’ve found a man who has been experimenting with breaking up different glass and bottles, and discovering that they melt different, they break up different… That’s something that we’re going to continue communication and might go in on together. We’ll see where that ends up.
BPGL: Going back to food for a minute, do you use organic dairy products, such as cheese?
McAFEE: There are so few organic cheeses. The entire milk industry is just being stomped on by the government. All the small producers want to have raw cheese and raw milk. That’s what the public wants, but the government is just making a mess and making everybody pasteurize things. In big feedlot type operations, that’s needed. But on a family farm, there’s a large number of people who think otherwise. That whole industry is just in shambles. I had hired someone to help me just procure products. She is constantly looking for cheese sources. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re hoping to help support some local people who are not organic, but would like to go organic.
BPGL: In what way would you support them? By buying from them or some other way?
McAFEE: No. By helping them with their certification and potentially financing them in a dairy operation. But as we learn about that, Texas is just so hot! With a grazing system, can we pull that off in Texas? I don’t know! The more I’m learning, the more I’m starting to wonder.
BPGL: What are some other choices you’ve had to make in order to go completely organic as a venue?
McAFEE: We try to make a difference with our purchasing dollar. Everything that we purchase, we ask all these questions. Then as we learn more and more about it, it manipulates our menu, because that becomes the driving force. For example, we used to sub out our bread. Once we started thinking about going organic, we found there were no organic bakers. So we had to hire a baker, and now we bake all of our breads. That’s been a big improvement in our menus.
We’ve just purchased a wood-fired pizza oven that we’ll install into an outdoor kitchen. It’s coming over from France. It’s made from an organic clay that they fire at very high temperature. It holds the heat, so we don’t have to use a lot of wood, which was a big issue. We worry about our carbon footprint.
BPGL: Have you done a carbon calculation?
McAFEE: We have a client coming up who does that for a living. We’ve talked about it, but no, we haven’t done it yet. Since we cannot get a lot of organic locally, we do have a fair amount coming to us from outside of Texas. So those are air miles. Then if you really start digging deep, you can just make yourself crazy to try and calculate those things.
BPGL: Let’s talk about your facility. You have a beautiful barn with a thatched roof. That’s pretty unusual in Texas.
McAFEE: That’s our ballroom. Ninety-five percent of our business is weddings. Usually the weddings are outside in the garden. And the reception then happens inside the ballroom.
Our house is on the National Register, and the guidelines that they give for any additions is they don’t want you to try to copy; that usually just doesn’t work so well. They want you to respect what you’ve got, but kind of go a different direction. So that was the premise we had to deal with when we decided to construct a ballroom.
I ended up falling in love with the New York timber-frame barns. We found one that went back to the 1700s, and found a group to bring it to Texas. Then we had these ancient timbers, and we had to decide how to clad them. The siding was no longer any good. Plus, because we’re in the garden wedding business, we didn’t want to be totally shut in by solid walls. So we decided to put up a curtain wall on the gable end, instead of putting panes of windows in between all the posts. We wanted to have it more like a giant window looking through the timber frame.
And I wanted it to feel organic. We looked at a metal roof, but we didn’t want it to feel like a barn. So, I thought, “Oh, gosh. If I could just have a thatched roof!” I got on the Internet and found this little thatching company from the Cotswolds of England. They had never been to London or been outside their little town, but they had a website. So we started talking back and forth, and they liked the idea of coming to Texas. They came for a month.
BPGL: Did they bring the thatch with them, or make it in Texas?
McAFEE: I was hoping that Johnson grass would work for the thatch. I thought I’d be a wealthy woman if I could figure that out, because we have way too much Johnson grass in Texas. Unfortunately, that was not the proper reed. A lot of the thatch coming to England, they import from Turkey. We ended up having it freighted in from Turkey.
BPGL: I guess you do have a few air miles in your carbon footprint.
McAFEE: Oh, yeah. That was in 2000, when I was only thinking organic foods. I don’t know what I’d do now that I’m in this “made-in-America” routine.
BPGL: Are people responding positively to the organic part of your venue, or are they just looking for a beautiful place to get married?
McAFEE: When we started all this, there was probably resistance. I think that people were worried that the prices would go up. They were not buying organic food for themselves, and they were skeptical. People are discovering more and more about their food supply; so, as time goes by, it gets to be more and more sought out. We could say we’ve done a couple of destination weddings because of that.
BPGL: What other organic or “green” services do you offer your clients?
McAFEE: We are a full-service venue, and not only provide the food, but have a florist, who does a lot of the flowers. We have a wedding coordinator, because there’s just lots of details to weddings these days. We help find all the other things that go into wedding planning. We’re trying to find out who all the other green vendors are and knit together. For example, we work with one hotel that is primarily solar. When people start asking us about where to house out-of-town guests, Habitat Suites in Austin is our first choice of referral, and it happens to be close by. There are also biodiesel limos. For all that stuff, we’re a good source for our clients, if they want to go in a green direction. We know where to help them find things.
BPGL: Did you encounter other issues surrounding getting certified as an organic events venue?
McAFEE: It’s just the food that is certified organic. We are talking to our certification agent about getting our grounds certified, too, but that’s another situation that I don’t think anybody’s done. Because we don’t grow food, they don’t know quite what to do with us.
BPGL: Which agency do you use for your certification?
McAFEE: We chose Oregon Tilth. The first restaurant to ever be certified organic is Restaurant Nora in Washington, DC. I knew about Nora, so I called her up and asked her who she used. That’s who she went through, so she had kind of done the hurdles, as far as setting the standards for organic foods businesses. So it made it lots easier for the Texas department [for organic certification]. They had no idea what to do, and there’s one person for all of Texas. It’s backlogged, and a very slow, long process because of that.
BPGL: How would you know if someone else has a special events venue that is also certified organic?
McAFEE: That was a problem. From the USDA, you can get a list of the certifiers, so we wrote a letter to every single one, and said that we believed that we were the first organic special events venue, but wanted verification. So, if they had certified a special events venue, we asked them to please let us know. About half of them responded back, and the others, we took the fact that they did not say there was one as our okay.
BPGL: You’re a ground breaker then.
McAFEE: Sometimes I wonder what direction and why, but once I was into it, I couldn’t turn back.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
Green Living Begins with a Barr Mansion Organic Wedding (Top of Page)