In recent years, the biggest trend in the meetings industry has been to organise events in a more sustainable way, without wasting natural resources unnecessarily. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus of the discussions shifted to virtual meetings and their applications. Now, as congresses and meetings are being re-launched on-site and in hybrid form, choices related to meeting arrangements are again topical.

Organising events and meetings generates greenhouse gas emissions. However, even carbon wise events are entirely possible. Good examples of this are Finland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2019 and the Finnish Conference on Vocational and Professional Education Research in 2021. In carbon wise events, all possible greenhouse gas emissions are sought to be avoided or reduced, and, eventually, the unavoidable emissions are offset. The choices made and their implementation are monitored and communicated openly.  

“The organiser of the congress is responsible for making sustainable choices and for the carbon footprint of the congress or event,” Jaana Lindgren says, providing a valuable reminder. She genuinely knows what she is talking about, having worked as a congress manager at the University of Turku for quite some time and having participated in organising the meetings during Finland’s 2019 EU Council Presidency as a meeting coordinator in the Prime Minister’s Office. She currently arranges the occasional meeting as part of her work tasks at the Turku University of Applied Sciences.

Lindgren was involved in organising the Finnish Conference on Vocational and Professional Education Research at the EduCity building of the Turku University of Applied Sciences in November 2021. The event is the most important annual event that presents vocational education and related research in Finland. In 2021, the theme of the conference was ‘Practice-based pedagogy as the promoter of sustainability knowledge, skills and attitudes’, and sustainability was a strong focus in the arrangements.

“The organiser must always make the choices related to the sustainability of the congress in advance. Participants cannot be held responsible, it is the organiser who ensures the sustainability of the congress,” Lindgren emphasises.

The new EduCity building located in the Kupittaa campus area is ideal for organising sustainable events. Accessibility, well-being and sustainable development were taken into account in the spatial arrangements, surface materials, interior decoration and technological solutions starting from the construction phase. As a result, EduCity has gained the esteemed LEED Platinum environmental certificate.

The location of EduCity is excellent for organising sustainable meetings and events, with Kupittaa railway station and the recently completed Original Sokos Hotel Kupittaa in the immediate vicinity. This meant that transport arrangements were not required during the event. Participants were advised to arrive by train and stay at the nearby hotel.

In fact, it is generally a good idea to encourage participants to use public transport.

“During the EU Council Presidency, participants were provided with a two-day ticket to public transport in the Helsinki region. In Turku, it is even possible to distribute QR codes for public transport to ensure that the only costs arise from actual use,” Lindgren explains. Turku Region Traffic, also called Föli, is the only public transport organisation in Finland to provide this option for using its services.

The power of example

“The aim of the EU Council Presidency was to act responsibly and update the old practices of political meetings, to show that more responsible meetings are, in fact, possible,” Lindgren says.

The meetings were concentrated in Helsinki. In addition, meetings were centralized in only one venue, Finlandia Hall, to minimize traveling. As many meetings as possible were held during the same week, for example, to reduce food waste. Overall, approximately half as many meetings were held as usual during a typical EU Council Presidency.

The food served during the Presidency meetings focused on Finnish seasonal food and no red meat was served. At the Finnish Conference on Vocational and Professional Education Research, on the other hand, everything was completely vegan and, if possible, also domestic. Catering was provided by Unica’s Kisälli restaurant, which took an ambitious approach to the vegan menu.

“Seasonal foods prepared from local organic ingredients, as well as Fairtrade tea and coffee with oat milk were served. The catering received a tremendous amount of praise from participants,” Lindgren says.

Unica Restaurants

Minimising materials

Handout materials often play an important role in meetings. During the Finnish Conference on Vocational and Professional Education Research, however, only about 40 sheets of printouts were required for purposes such as signage, thanks to movable electronic displays and the Howspace platform. For example, abstracts were published only electronically. Name tags were made from recycled materials, and the name tag cases were reusable. The speaker gifts of the keynote speakers will appear as trees planted in the Turku cityscape.

During Finland’s EU Council Presidency, no traditional gifts were given to the participants. Moreover, efforts were made to minimise the use of new materials in general. No decorations and cut flowers were used. Even the visual identity was recycled from Finland’s previous 2006 EU Council Presidency. Everything possible was either recycled or reusable.

Responsibility and communications

The choices made in advance have a significant impact on the sustainability of a meeting. During the EU Council Presidency, good planning and reform of practices reduced the carbon footprint of all presidency meetings by 70% compared to the previous presidencies. For example, the funds allocated for traditional gifts were used for compensating all the participants’ greenhouse gas emissions from air travel.

During the Finnish Conference on Vocational and Professional Education Research, the Circular Business Models research group of the Turku University of Applied Sciences monitored the event’s climate impacts through the CarbonWise project and calculated the carbon footprint caused by all the arrangements. The calculation considered the travel and accommodation arrangements of the keynote speakers, all catering, materials used and waste management. All emissions of the event will be compensated in cooperation with the City of Turku units for urban construction and climate and environmental policy by planting trees in the Turku city region.

Sustainability must also be considered in communications.

“It is important to take responsibility for the choices made in congress arrangements and to communicate about them before, during and after the event,” Lindgren recalls.

In the case of the Finnish Conference on Vocational and Professional Education Research, the participants were informed about the sustainable choices beforehand, including the vegan catering and the compensation included in the participation fee. In addition, a calculator was published on the event website, enabling participants to determine the emissions caused by their travel and accommodation, and to find out about various voluntary compensation opportunities. After the event, the participants were informed about the total carbon footprint of the event, the allocation of the compensation fee and the implementation of the compensation.

The carefully considered carbon wise event received a lot of positive feedback from the participants for their responsible and sustainable choices: “The setting was amazing, and the event was well organised. It is truly appreciable that you have put the principles of sustainable development into practice as much as possible.”

Text: Saara Kemppi
Photos: Jaana Lindgren / Mika Okko and Unica