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ISO 20121:2024

Get your event ISO 20121 certified

How can events today make sure sustainability forms the basis of their operations and is not just an ad hoc measure added to an older business model? Only a week ago, the revised version of ISO 20121: Event sustainability management systems was published, offering an answer to this question.

Events are frequently criticized for insufficient consideration of the environmental and social impacts they have. At the same time, they are the backbone of our cultural lives, providing much needed “time off”, fun and joy to regenerate our energies. Undeniably, they form a stage for unforgettable memories and an opportunity to connect with fellow citizens and friends. Yet it is a shame when these benefits are obscured by news of incredible amounts of waste, unsafe working conditions and polluted air and landscapes as a result of the same events that bring so much positivity into many people’s lives.

The relatively new concept of sustainability forces us to consider not only short-term impacts, but also the medium and long-term consequences of our activities. It sets new standards for ethical business conduct, challenging us to face the complex, interrelated issues of modern times and maximize the positive impacts we have. However, due to the inherent complexity of this task and the unfortunate tendency for one well-intentioned measure to cause new issues in another area, “sustainable” initiatives have often only minimally improved the overall sustainability of an event, many companies have been accused of green- or social washing.

ISO 20121: Event sustainability management systems offers a more holistic approach to sustainability. It aspires to integrate sustainability principles into every aspect of the event value chain, making them the firm foundation of the company’s operations. A management system is not a checklist – it is a set of interacting elements of an organization to establish policies and objectives and processes to achieve those objectives.

Some companies may be fearful of taking the step to a new management system, or they may not want to confront its negative impacts because they think the process is too costly and time-consuming. However, ISO 20121 can be implemented in just 6 steps, which are illustrated graphically below and which I will outline in the following paragraphs.

The first step consists of familiarizing yourself with the standard and finding out what requirements it places on a company and what flexibilities and freedoms it allows. Next, the planning phase starts. In a collaborative process involving key stakeholders, the most important environmental, social and economic topics on which the company should focus are selected. Then the sustainability strategy is drafted, finding creative solutions that can address one or more relevant topics without adversely affecting other topics.

Once roles and accountabilities have been fixed, the implementation phase can begin. Resources are devoted to the realization of the measures defined in the sustainability strategy. To know whether these measures are having the desired effect, key performance indicators (KPIs) must be chosen. Data on these KPIs is collected throughout the implementation phase, a process called “monitoring”. At the end of the event, an evaluation phase follows. The data is analysed to determine whether the sustainability strategy is working or needs to be amended.

The audit to obtain the ISO 20121 certificate can take place during this step (as a verification of the sustainability strategy) or before the implementation (as validation of the sustainability strategy). Moreover, the audit can be carried out by an internal or external auditor. The choice lies in the hands of the event organisation. Finally, corrective actions are decided upon to improve the sustainability strategy and bring the organisation closer to its objectives.

ISO 20121 is not linear. The steps described above can be repeated indefinitely in a never-ending optimization process that can be applied flexibly by all types and sizes of event companies. Besides improving a company’s sustainability, it also puts in place a framework that effectively stimulates critical reflection and growth. As such, an organisation never loses sight of the importance of innovating its operations and meeting the ethical expectations society places upon them.

Probably the largest benefit a company can gain from introducing an event sustainability management system is the marketing advantage it receives. One study by our company (reference below) has shown that isolated sustainability initiatives are far less well received by stakeholders than an integrated sustainability strategy. Today, event sustainability management systems are still innovative and ahead of their time. But soon they may become mainstream or even mandatory. Don’t be the laggard resisting positive change, be one of the early adopters driving sustainable development!

Contact us for more information at sarah@actingresponsibly.com. We can help you get certified and support you throughout the process.