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Going green: Sustainable conferences in Estonia

With demand for eco-friendly, or at least eco-friendlier, conferences on the rise, more and more meeting organisers are looking for green solutions. Estonia, as it turns out, has some huge natural advantages in feeding this growing market niche. Here are the details, along with some strategic tips for lowering your event’s footprint.

Concerns about environmental impact are changing business approaches in every sector, and the meetings industry is no exception. Whether it’s down to genuine feelings of corporate social responsibility, a desire to project a positive image or simply wanting to save money (a notable side benefit), more organisations than ever are opting to go the sustainable conference route.

What does ‘sustainable conference’ actually mean? The truth is that most conferences are high-impact affairs, particularly due to travel to the host city. Completely making up for that environmental cost alone, to say nothing of what’s generated by all the other conference activity, would be no mean feat. The goal of the sustainable conference is therefore simply to lower the overall impact as much as possible. The UN, in its Sustainable Events Guide, provides a complex and wide-ranging sustainability checklist that covers everything from social inclusion to percentages of volatile organic compounds in cleaning products. Unless you’re a superhuman event planner though, we recommend staying focused on the fundamentals: conserving energy, reducing waste, buying local products and simply consuming less.

Sustainable, naturally

Putting together a sustainable conference will always require planning and work, but certain destinations like Estonia have built-in attributes that make the job a lot easier.

One of these is size, and here it’s a case of the smaller the better. Estonia’s primary conference cities, Tallinn, Tartu and Pärnu, are all cosy and compact, making it easy to get from place to place by foot. Instead of burning fossil fuels (not to mention time and money) travelling from hotel to meeting venue to restaurant, delegates will be enjoying quick strolls, typically around 5 minutes long. For delegates meeting in Tallinn, the distance from the airport to the city centre is just 4km, and a direct tram connection means it’s reasonable to skip the transfer bus entirely.

The short-distance advantage works outside the city as well. For example, organisers who want to add an even larger green element to their conferences by incorporating nature walks, tree planting or cleanup activities (all of which can easily be arranged) will find that nature areas are never far away – usually within a few kilometres of the city limits.

Cyberspace saves trees

In the early 2000s, Estonia made world headlines by being the first country to adopt online, paperless government, a move that saved several hectares of forest and a good chunk of money annually. The private sector quickly followed suit. For nearly two decades now, paperless business operation has been the norm in the country.

This experience, coupled with the free Wi-Fi that’s available pretty much everywhere a conference delegate would need it, makes it simple for conferences to similarly go paperless. Instead of printing glossy brochures, presentations and schedules, all materials can be made available online, accessible wherever and whenever needed. Even conference registration can be done in a purely digital format.

Local, fresh and pure

One of the fundamentals of sustainability, especially where conferences are concerned, is using locally-sourced products rather than those shipped across oceans and continents. In catering, the recommendation is to keep ingredients as local, organic and seasonal as possible.

As luck would have it, the dining trend in Estonia is a perfect fit for this strategy. The emphasis among the country’s chefs and catering companies is on Nordic Cuisine, which emphasises use of local and seasonal products. These might be berries and mushrooms from the forrest, domestically farmed herbs and grain, or fish and game from local suppliers. It won’t be hard, therefore, to find dining options that fit sustainability criteria.

On a similar note, the tap water throughout the country is pure enough to be served in restaurants, which negates the need for bottled water during meetings, and the waste and pollution associated with plastic containers.

To see more details about what makes Estonia a fantastic host country for sustainable conferences, you can take a look at this list we’ve put together.

Finding a green approach

Planning a sustainable conference doesn’t have to be a daunting task. In fact, it can give you a chance to put your creativity to work in finding ways to make improvements at every corner. A common sense approach and a critical look at sourcing, use and disposal can be enough for a good result. You can start by checking out the ECB’s Tips for Green Meetings in Estonia page, which spells out concrete actions to take in several areas. Beyond that, we recommend the following general strategies:

Communicate – Let everyone involved, including delegates, suppliers and your organising team, know about your sustainability goals. This will not only help get them on board with your concept, but could result in them providing you ideas and options you hadn’t thought of. Be sure to give delegates enough information, such as public transportation schedules, to take advantage of greener alternatives where available.

Plan with care – Every decision counts, from picking a conference room with an option for natural light to ensuring that your picnic provider is using reusable dishes. Checking all these details beforehand is critical. In addition, make sure you have accurate counts of delegates for each time and activity. This will help reduce waste such as ordering too many meals or hiring a bus that’s bigger than you need.

Cooperate – Conferences don’t happen in a vacuum of course, so close coordination with local suppliers is a must. This is good news for organisers, since suppliers can take up some of the sustainability burden and are likely to be better tuned in to the local economy. It’s important to choose the right suppliers from the start, such as catering companies that emphasise sustainable practises and hotels with solid certifications such as the Green Key. Also look for Estonia’s own certification label, EHE, which is awarded to eco-friendly service providers.

For additional help and advice in planning a sustainable conference in Estonia, feel free to get in touch with the ECB.

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