24 Mar 2022

What is ISO 20121 and how can you deliver more impact through it?

Pippy Stephenson

ISO 20121 is a voluntary international standard that can be put in place by any event, venue, or provider within the events industry at any time. Events industry companies sign up to the initiative to say that they are considering sustainability in their practices. It has a reputational advantage to do so and it helps businesses to develop organised methods for managing their events in an economically, environmentally and socially conscious way. Costs are reduced by less wasteful consumption of materials and energy. Companies also find they have a strengthened position within their community and enhanced diversity, inclusion and accessibility.  

The official document says “What makes ISO 20121 so important is that it provides state-of-the-art solutions for the event industry worldwide because it has been developed by representatives of this same sector on an international scale. It tackles the event industry’s challenges in all three dimensions of sustainability, at all stages of its supply chain.”

A stand alone venue can become ISO 20121 certified, so that all the events held on the site are classed as sustainable events. Alternatively, upcoming events can become individually certified. Both types of certification are gained through audits. Being certified makes an event company more competitive and ensures a long-term return on investment. In simple terms, ISO 20121 allows businesses to publicly declare their commitment to sustainability in an internationally recognised way. 

In 2009, the organisers of the 2012 London Olympics were looking for a way to confirm the sustainable commitments they had made, so they got in contact with the British Standards Institution (BSI) who developed some guidance on sustainable event management. This standard became widely used and was implemented by COP15 and Microsoft. This BSI initiative set the groundwork for the internationally recognised ISO 20121, which was then used by the 2012 London Olympics. But the standard isn’t only suitable for big events, it can work at any scale. 

What does ISO 20121 involve?

ISO 20121 provides a framework for understanding the negative social, economic and environmental impacts on your operations. Once these impacts have been measured and understood they can then be removed or reduced. The standard helps businesses to make improvements to their venue selection, transport, recycling and reuse of materials. It allows and encourages businesses to promote healthy, sustainable lifestyles and create employment opportunities. ISO 20121 also gives companies guidance on their communications, planning and supply chain management. 

The steps towards being certified are: 

This is an optional pre-assessment stage where you think about how your event management system compares to the ISO 20121 requirements. It allows you to know what areas might need attention before the formal assessment. 

Firstly it is checked that your business has developed the procedures and controls necessary for ISO 20121 accreditation. If areas are found where your organisation falls short you will be told where you need to improve. If the requirements are there, it is then checked that they are all operating to a good enough standard for certification. 

Certification lasts three years. During this time your organisation will be regularly checked to ensure that improvement is maintained.

Who's signed up?

ISO 20121 was part-initiated by the London Olympic and Paralympics organisers, who were among the first to implement the standard in 2012. The Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy (WPNSA) who hosted the 2012 Olympic sailing events, used the standard and reported cost savings of 15% on waste management and electricity usage. This in turn enhanced their international reputation. John Tweed, CEO of WPNSA said
“Our venue demonstrates a clear commitment to sustainability through a robust management system. Now that we meet the requirements of an internationally recognised standard, we believe that this independent certification will help us attract more corporate functions and sailing regattas from those seeking to integrate sustainability into their supply chain.”

​​Plaza Athénée Bangkok (A Royal Meridien Hotel) was the first hotel in the world to be ISO 20121 certified. Since beginning the initiative they have reduced electricity consumption by 9.4%, water by 5%, and paper by 4.9% each year. “Carbon footprint profiling revealed a 47% reduction in printer ink consumption and a 25% reduction in plastic bottle use.”

What steps can be made for ISO 20121 to be more actionable?

On the official website for ISO 20121, it’s written, “most organisations are already doing up to 70% of what the standard requires. Hence achieving ISO 20121 may not require any radical change but is likely to require the adoption of new practices.” This makes me wonder if ISO 20121 really goes far enough. We’ve got a lot of work left to do to tackle climate change, it’s certainly not just a matter of putting in 30% more effort. They say ISO 20121 does not require radical change but surely radical change is exactly what is required to move towards a sustainable future. I wonder whether the accreditation puts a little too much emphasis on the reputational gains associated with it and creates a situation where with very little effort, events can be labelled as “sustainable”. There seems to be too much focus on winning new business and making long term economic returns by showing off your certification rather than actually trying to improve the sustainability of your organisation. 

This isn’t to say the ISO 20121 is worthless, it can be an effective catalyst encouraging businesses to reflect on their operations and how they impact the communities and environments around them. It is very necessary that every business pays attention to their relationship to sustainability and works to find ways of working that are better for people and the planet. Perhaps ISO 20121 would be more impactful when combined with a net zero pledge or other similar commitment? Or perhaps a workshop on measuring event emissions could make the standard more relevant? 

The ISO 20121 website also says “In time, demonstrating compliance to ISO 20121 is likely to become a minimum requirement for anyone wishing to operate in the events industry”. Maybe this is the right way of looking at it, instead of picking out ISO 20121 as a mark of exceptional achievement in sustainability it can be seen as the bare minimum of what is expected. In order for an events company to maintain the reputational and economic benefits of being exceptionally sustainable it must keep improving, going further and further beyond the requirements of ISO 20121. 

Why get certified? 

We spoke to Kellie Reynolds, Head of Operations at Capital Events, who attended our Event Sustainability Workshop and is implementing ISO 20121. She said:

“Going through the process of becoming accredited to ISO 20121 was very useful in terms of understanding how the steps we take in planning an event can all add up towards the goal of becoming more sustainable. Often in events we are working at full speed and we don’t always spot the opportunities for improvements or even the things we already do that are good socially or environmentally. The accreditation has helped make us more intentional and joined up in our processes.

I would say going for the ISO 20121 accreditation is worth it for medium to large sized businesses but I am not sure I would recommend it for smaller companies. There is a great deal of work involved and if you only have a small team I would say it would be wiser to use the time choosing a few areas where you can focus on making improvements first.

Now that we are certified we are looking to keep moving forwards and focusing on where we can improve in terms of our social and environmental initiatives. Partnerships are definitely a great way forward with this – joining up with local environmental groups, working with suppliers who are already on their own environmental path and seeing where you can support local social initiatives that are relevant to the event you are planning are all great ideas to explore.”

What did you get from ISO 20121 and why did you want to pursue further steps? 

“Becoming accredited to ISO 20121 was a big step forward for us in terms of having the best processes in place to take us in the right direction. Once we were accredited we wanted to start making an impact and the Reset Connect workshop has helped us learn how to calculate our event carbon footprints. The calculations really help you to see the elements of your shows that do the most damage in terms of carbon emissions and therefore give you some direction on where to focus your attention to make the most impact. It was a great workshop – a perfect mixture of learning and practical group work - and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to reduce the environmental impact of their events” Kellie continued.

As a venue for the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games, ExCeL London adopted ISO 20121 in 2011. Since this initial commitment the venue has continually reviewed their sustainability performance and introduced various initiatives to improve it. 71% of the venue’s waste was recycled in 2021, in 2020 they were supplied with 100% renewable energy and green gas (offset with UN carbon credits) and switched to LED lighting and screens across the venue. They produced a virtual tour so that prospective clients wouldn’t need to generate unnecessary travel emissions. The venue donates furniture that is no longer needed, recycles cooking oil into biofuel and has an onsite wormery. We spoke to ExCeL, who told us,

“We recognise the importance of the ISO 20121 standard, as it was specifically developed and designed for the events industry, providing a framework for managing sustainability-related impacts and identifying areas for improvement. As it is not a UKAS accredited standard, it is vital that organisations also align with the requirements of ISO 14001 to ensure there is a robust Sustainability Management System underpinning any company specific requirements. We should remember that the standards are in place to provide a method of planning, implementing and monitoring performance in a consistent manner that fosters continuous sustainable development.” 

Conclusion 

ISO 20121 is a great first step for an events company to become more sustainable, in environmental, social and economic ways. However it’s important for organisations to move beyond ISO 20121, make stronger commitments to carbon reductions, more specifically to become net zero. Events industry companies should look to environmental groups for guidance and collaboration on how to be more ambitious with their targets and commitments. 

A great next step would be to attend a Reset Connect Event Sustainability Workshop. These help you to measure, manage and reduce your climate impact. We’ll walk you through what data to collect and how to calculate your carbon emissions. You can then use these calculations to inform your reduction targets and sustainability strategies. For workshops in April and May, book your place here

Reset Connect London, 28-29 June 2022, will bring together climate experts, industry leaders, start-ups, sustainable innovators and green finance, to fast-track our way to net zero and speed the transition to a green economy. If you want to go beyond ISO 20121, Reset Connect London will be the perfect place to discover new methods for sustainable operation, book a ticket here. 

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