The standard on sustainable event management gets a makeover

If you are in the business of organizing events, then you are bound to be familiar with ISO 20121. The standard that provides guidance on how to organize sustainable events has just been given an update and should help small and large events alike to keep their environmental and social promises, whether village fairs or major international sports competitions.

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In France, it has been used to certify the G7 summit in France in 2019 , as well as the cultural activities staged by the town of Saint-Raphaël on the country’s south-eastern coast. The ISO 20121 voluntary standard offers guidance for organizing sustainable events with the focus on the three pillars of sustainable development, namely the economy, the environment and society. It takes a keen interest in water, waste, energy, transport, the use of the socially responsible economy, and many other issues. But the standard began showing a few limitations. ISO 20121 was created back in 2012 within the confines of the British Standards Institution (BSI) with that year’s London Summer Olympics in its sights. It may have been groundbreaking at the time, but we were still a long way from today’s awareness of environmental and climate challenges.

From London to Paris

The standard was fairly ahead of its time back in 2012, but fast-forward to 2024 and a revision was needed, especially to avoid the trap of greenwashing, since some events, both local and global, had claimed to be compliant with this CSR tutorial, but only on the surface. “Within the space of 12 years, citizens’ expectations had increased to such an extent that a revision was essential,” explains Pauline Teyssedre, Chair of the AFNOR standardization commission that coordinated the French work on the standard, and Strategy Director at events consultancy Galis, which has been ISO 20121-certified for the last eight years. Expectations, but also practices: “We had to update the standard so that the events industry as a whole could get properly organized,” agrees Romain Riboud, from the Impact and Legacy Division of the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games Organizing Committee. “We also had to ensure that the standard reflected the advances that professionals had achieved by sharing their progress with the widest possible audience,” particularly when it comes to legacy [editor’s note: the enduring results and impact that the event will have on the local community].

Driven by his interest in the project’s global dimension and encouraged by the International Olympic Committee, Romain Riboud led a working group on behalf of Paris 2024, bringing together 16 countries and a dozen international liaison structures under the guidance of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Then the aim was to put the document into action during the headline event of the summer. “We’ve managed to make the standard more ambitious in content and more flexible in form,” adds Romain Riboud. The AFNOR commission also featured service providers, trade show organizers, venue operators and consultants. In all, there were 180 professionals, including those within UNIMEV (French Union for Events Industry Professionals).

Sustainable procurement, children’s rights and SDGs

So how does the 2024 version overcome the shortcomings in the previous version? “The standard now requires organizations to draw up a sustainable development policy and implement an action plan, along with predefined objectives and indicators,” says Pauline Teyssedre, who also chairs UNIMEV’s CSR Committee. “We spent a lot of time working on the concept of legacy, such as improving what already exists and what remains of an event once it’s over.” »

Other important new features include Chapter 8, which addresses sustainable procurement (which is covered in greater detail in the ISO 20400 voluntary standard), and Annex D on child rights. “We decided to work on four key areas,” says Pauline Teyssedre. Firstly, we focused on aligning the standard with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Secondly, we tightened up the requirements for evaluating the impact. Twelve years ago, the whole concept of an event’s impact was less tangible, such as the impact on the carbon footprint, the economy, people and the local community. Today, the standard explicitly requires organizations to assess these impacts.” »

A more robust foundation for certification

The third key area was clarifying the certification processes for the bodies involved in auditing event organizers that claim to comply with the standard, such as AFNOR Certification here . “We found that the requirements varied from one body to another, and from one person to another. So we revised the definitions and produced a new annex exclusively for the evaluation process,” says Pauline Teyssedre. The bottom line is that an event that fails to spontaneously mention CSR should no longer be awarded certification, such as the hyper air-conditioned Football World Cup in Qatar in 2022.

The standard provides a common set of requirements, but everyone is free to set their sights even higher! “Some people believe that standards should set out objectives that apply to everyone, but I don’t share that view,” explains Pauline Teyssedre, “otherwise it would become elitist. But this standard is not reserved for the best performers. In 2024, the important thing is to embrace sustainability and engage as many people as possible, whether small businesses or large organizations. In France, many small and medium-sized businesses are active in the events sector. It’s important for companies without a full-time CSR officer to get on board and win tenders.” »

The bibliography in the 2024 version of the standard has tripled in size, since many new texts have since appeared that offer an invaluable source of information. “Our business activities have changed a lot since the Covid-19 pandemic. We need to present our industry to young people in the right way and attract talent. From this perspective, standardization work offers precious support to us,” concludes Pauline Teyssedre.

A standard recognized in the field

By 31 December 2022, some 247 ISO 20121 certificates had been issued worldwide, including 124 for French organizations, covering 216 sites.

Source: ISO Survey 2023