A common language for sustainability could transform the events industry

August 02, 2016

With the opening of the Rio 2016 Olympics approaching, Anna Loveridge reflects on progress made by the sustainable event industry – and asks how more events can be encouraged to implement environmental and social standards.


On Earth Day, for the second year running, #CSRShareDay filled the twittersphere (at one point we were 5th trending hashtag, right below #ObamaintheUK) and in 24 hours we reached 1.2 million people. Following on from this, in May, members of the event industry supply chain gathered in London to discuss a collaboration to create research for a sustainable event industry. The passion for talking about sustainability in the event industry is strong, but what does this really mean?

It is now 4 years since the event sustainability standard ISO 20121 was created. An international standard that focuses on creating a culture for making decisions with the social, economic and environmental impacts in mind, this standard is relevant for anyone in the event industry supply chain, in any country in the world. If the event industry really wanted to demonstrate its understanding of the importance of sustainability, the standard should be a priority.

Unfortunately the implementation of ISO 20121 is still woefully low. By now pretty much every hotel, production company, destination or conference centre will have a statement about sustainability on their website, and some evidence of action such as solar paneling or waste reduction. Why has it taken over four years for the global event industry to align with international frameworks for best practice? We’ll explore the reasons now…

1‐ “Sustainability is still the topic to talk about”

The best practice sharing across #CSRshareDay was inspirational. Over the last four years various governments have funded initiatives to enable local collaborations to create their own ‘sustainable event’ trademarks. Annual attendance of The Global Sustainable Events Summit grows. These are all signs that the industry is inspired by and wants to be in communication about this topic.

Thinking positively, this could be driven by the fact that everyone wants to leave a positive legacy from their daily work. Thinking cynically, it could be that people think it’s easier to talk about sustainability than take action to put into place international standards.

2‐ “It’s still ok to have excuses”

The most common excuses are “My client isn’t asking for it” and the classic combination of “I don’t have time/budget for sustainability”. Imagine someone saying they didn’t have budget for health, safety and security or didn’t feel the need to match international best practice. The damage we are doing daily to our planet is not as immediately impactful as health, safety and security risks, but should be taken just as seriously. Implementing ISO 20121 is a way to demonstrate this seriousness.

The most challenging excuse is “I need to know what the exact benefits to me will be before I decide to implement this”. With ten years of experience the main thing I have learnt is that it is impossible to predict the extent of the benefits created beforehand.

3‐ “I’m not doing ISO 20121 I’m doing…….”

Any actions towards being sustainable are good actions. But as a global industry, imagine how useful it would be if clients and suppliers could speak the same sustainability language. The profile of what we do in the event industry would rise if we used the same approach as the industries that we plan events for.

Currently many event industry businesses miss opportunities to enhance their brand reputation, reduce their overheads and inspire staff because there isn’t a budget line for sustainability. My wish list for business spending would be to start with education (including how to implement international frameworks), then move to measurement (as until we start measuring and reporting we are just guessing at our impacts) and finally budget for storytelling, because we can’t hear enough about the inspiring approaches being taken to create a sustainable event industry.

For those working in other industries, my message is simple: ask your events suppliers about their sustainability initiatives! Ask them whether they plan to implement ISO 20121 and require them to report on their impacts. Without such action, the event industry’s loss will continue to be our clients’ loss too.

By the time the Olympics takes place in Tokyo in 2020 I hope it’s the norm for the event industry supply chain to be implementing ISO 20121. Having a best practice approach in place would give our industry the chance to compare the impacts of our events, would give us a common language to speak about sustainability and could raise the profile of the work our industry does and why we do it. That is the business case for implementing ISO 20121!


Anna Loveridge is Creative Content Coordinator at Positive Impact Events.