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What is ISO 20121?

ISO 20121:2012, the business case and path to implementation.

ISO 20121 for sustainable events

Mermaids at Glastonbury Festival

ISO 20121:2012 is an international standard that has been written to help events & hospitality organisations of all sizes to integrate sustainability into every-day management practise. It’s no coincidence that the standard was launched at the same time as the 2012 Olympics, because the organising committee used it to make the games the most sustainable so far.  The term “sustainability” has been used a lot over the last few years but many people are still uncertain what it means. In the context of making events & hospitality sustainable we’re talking about balancing three things, People, Planet & Profit, the “3 Ps”. This means that the event or venue should:-

  • Be financially attractive for the organisers & backers
  • Minimise the use of resources & production of waste
  • Take into account the needs of the people who will be affected by it

This ISO standard has been designed to replace the existing British Standard for events sustainability, BS 8901 and current users of BS 8901 are expected to make the transition to ISO 20121 over a period of time.

ISO 20121 has been designed to be flexible, so that it can apply to all types of gatherings and the supply chains that service them:-

  • Large fixed venues such as sports stadia, race tracks & events show grounds
  • Smaller fixed venues such as hotels, leisure complexes & holiday parks
  • Large temporary venues such as music festivals, harbour festivals and marathons
  • Small temporary venues such as conferences and trade fairs

There is no requirement for ISO 20121 to be externally certified, because it is designed for organisations to use internally as a tool to improve sustainability, and it uses the tried & tested ISO standard framework that enables it to be easily integrated with existing management systems like ISO 9001 for quality management or ISO 14001 for environmental management. ISO 20121 uses a systematic & detailed approach to identify & control the impacts of the event and, as a direct result, it can lead to significant benefits for the organisation that applies it.

What are the benefits?

Increased profit

ISO 20121 helps the organisation to understand where & when resources are being used & waste is being generated, then encourages a step-wise analysis of the data that highlights opportunities for reduction. This leads directly to cost savings.

ISO 20121 makes sure that the organisation plans for all aspects of the event or venue that it is running, making it much more likely to be “right-first-time” and avoiding costly action to fix problems at the last moment.

Effectively managed risk

ISO 20121 ensures that an organisation minimises the impact of its activities and any strain on local resources that could lead to objections from planners, regulators, neighbours and emergency services that could, in turn, prevent opening or lead to its early closure.

ISO 20121 encourages the organisation to focus on sustainability within its supply chain. This contributes towards supply chain resilience, helps protect the organisation against loss of critically important materials and services and also acts as a damper on supply chain price increases.

ISO 20121 requires that an organisation identifies and manages its legal responsibilities and so avoids prosecution of the organisation and its officers.

Increased sales

ISO 20121 boosts an organisation’s brand and reputation for corporate social responsibility, making it more likely to attract large public & private sector clients.

ISO 20121 helps to reduce operating costs, so allows the organisation to maintain margin under price pressure.

Improved relationships with third parties

ISO 20121 reassures planners, regulators, investors & other interested parties that the organisation has all of its various impacts under control and so can lead to a lighter touch being used and can forestall conflict with the local population.

What is in ISO 20121?

In common with all other ISO standards, ISO 20121:2012 makes use of Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle, which was originally developed to help manufacturers with quality improvement.

Deming cycle

Plan Do Check Act

Plan: Appoint someone who will be responsible for developing the management system; develop an organisation to manage sustainability and assign responsibilities; identify & engage interested parties; identify and evaluate issues; set improvement objectives and plans to deliver them.

Do: Carry out training, develop processes and procedures; put sustainability management action plans into practise.

Check: Monitor and measure sustainable management processes; determine progress against the key performance indicators, policy and objectives; report the results.

Act: Take actions to continually improve sustainability performance and the operation of the management system.
By guiding the organisation through a logical process, ISO 20121 avoids having to invent a sustainability management system from scratch and can save a considerable amount of time & effort.

How do I go about it?

If you decide to implement ISO 20121 your organisation is making a number of important commitments:-

  • To become a sustainable organisation. In other words, to be financially successful, socially responsible and to make your environmental footprint as small as possible.
  • To comply with the laws and codes of practice that apply to your event, at the location you’ve chosen.
  • To understand how your event(s) will make an impact, taking into account the place it will be held.
  • To engage the parties that will be affected by the event, understand their needs and expectations, and do your best to satisfy them.
  • Take your supply chain on the journey with you and make them central to how your organisation will become sustainable.
  • Make plans to manage the impacts that you have identified, set objectives and targets for improvement and put operational procedures in place to deliver them.
  • Staff and those who work on behalf of the organisation, who need to be aware of sustainability issues and performance objectives, need to be competent in the skills and day-to-day practices to improve performance.
  • The results should be regularly evaluated and communicated to all personnel, recognising high achievement.

You may decide that your organisation has the skills, experience & free-time to meet these commitments in-house. Depending on the existing level of experience of putting management systems in place, an organisation should budget for up to 60 person-days to get an ISO 20121 Event Sustainability Management System up & running. As an alternative the organisation may decide to appoint a consultant to cover gaps that it has identified in skills & experience or time availability. An experienced consultant will be able to short-cut much of the planning process, which should lead to faster implementation of ISO 20121and a major reduction in the time committed by the organisation’s own people.

Once the people have been allocated to the project then, apart from some straight-forward documents and procedures that any management system would need to work effectively, ISO 20121 isn’t prescriptive and can be designed to be very light-weight and easy to run. Most mature events management or hospitality organisations will already have the basics needed to conform to ISO 20121 and an experienced management systems practitioner can take what the organisation already does and demonstrate how it meets the standard, rather than having to write completely new processes from scratch. This also avoids the need for employees to learn new ways of working and cuts down the time needed to get the system up & running.

The first stages usually involve a systematic cataloguing of the organisation’s significant impacts and sustainability issues and the control measures that it has already put in place. This is followed by a searching look at the third parties that will be affected by the event. It’s at this early stage that the detailed & systematic approach to understanding impacts and stake-holders identifies opportunities that may have been missed, even by organisations that already have ISO 9001, ISO 14001, or OHSAS 18001, and they start to realise the benefits of the standard.

Once the baseline performance has been identified, the organisation moves on to developing & implementing strategies to manage the “3 Ps” better and, at the same time, continuing to gather & analyse data to ensure that improvements are being achieved.

At the end of the implementation process, you can choose to have your event sustainability management system independently certified to show to the world that you’ve achieved a very high standard. If you do, it’s important to use one of the hundred or so certification bodies in the UK that are accredited by the government-backed United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS). This ensures that your achievements will be recognised by