History of ISO 20121

Joe Ellis      12 November 2014

The events industry is one of great longevity. From 1st Birthdays to royal weddings, throughout history, there has always been the need for event planning. One of the first royal weddings was Alexander The Great marrying a Persian Princess in 324 BC. This extravagant wedding took place in the city of Susa, known as the Susa Weddings. There were multiple wedding ceremonies lasting 5 days, held in a luxurious tent with entertainers recruited from all over the Greek World. Today, mass travel allows events of this scale to be common place.

All events, no matter what size, will have impacts economically, socially and environmentally. They can leave behind a large carbon footprint in the form of travel, waste, energy and resource use, impacting local communities and the wider population. With management systems already being a large success in other fields, such as environmental and quality management, the event management industry craved a bespoke management system of their own.

The seed for the first formal standard was planted at a London 2012 Olympic bid promotion in 2004, where concerns were put forward to the British Standard Institution (BSI) by the London Organising Committee (LOCOG). These concerns, coupled with pressure from other practitioners in the events industry, were taken on board by the BSI and 3 years later BS 8901:2007 was born. The standard specifies the requirements for a sustainability management system for all kinds of events, aimed at not only event organisers and venue managers, but also other stakeholders in the supply chain. In 2009 a more clear, simple and useful version of BS 8901 was released; BS 8901:2009.
The standard was very successful with high profile events such as COP15 (United Nations Conference on Climate Change) being certified as compliant with BS 8901:2009 in December 2009. Due to high levels of interest this standard then evolved into the international standard; ISO 20121. This was launched in the summer of 2012 to coincide with the Olympic and Paralympic Games. One of the catalysts to the creation of the new standard was the sustainability promise made in the London Games bid. ISO 20121 was then developed by events and standard experts from 25 countries, with another 10 countries observing. Members of the sustainability team of the London 2012 Games were among the stakeholders who provided input to a committee. Once again, the new standard was extremely successful with high adoption rates from all countries involved in its development.
Like any management system ISO 20121 is a set of interrelated or interacting elements that are used to establish policies and objectives, and the processes to achieve these goals. The standard specifies the elements that an organisation requires, which must be in place to achieve successful ‘certification’. It is important to remember that it is the management system operated by the organisation that must be compliant with ISO 20121, not the event. ISO 20121 does not convey the required elements as a checklist, but instead, they are depicted in a more intricate and complex document. Consequently, this can lead to the standard being difficult to understand and assist with interpreting the requirements is often needed.

The new standard has extended its reach from its predecessors and now applies to all types and sizes of organisations involved in the events industry. It covers the event organiser, workforce, supply chain, participants, attendees, regulatory bodies and community. As well as looking at the environmental impacts of a business, the standard also addresses both the social impacts, including health and safety, social justice and cultural issues, and economic impacts, including return on investment, shareholder value and risk. ISO 20121 also shares similarities with the highly successful and well known standard, ISO 14001. Some of the key similarities include; documenting the evaluation process identifying significant impacts; keeping up to date with upcoming legislation; and setting clear targets and objectives which necessitates the need for measurable key performance indicators.

The standard has the skeleton of many ISO standards with the ‘plan, do, check, act’ approach and a continual improvement focus. There is a total of 10 clauses, including Leadership, Planning, Support, Operation, Performance evaluation, and Improvement. ISO 20121 places more emphasis on the actual leadership of the sustainable practice within the business to realise the sustainable internal and external influences of the company’s activities. The standard does not specify which sustainability issues to manage or what performance levels to achieve. Instead, it requires that an organisation has in place a transparent process through which it systematically evaluates the issues relevant to its operations and sets its own objectives and targets for improvement.

There are many benefits associated with achieving compliance of ISO 20121. They include:

* Integration of other ISO standards through the compatibility of ISO 20121

* Reduced costs through improved efficiency

* Reduced carbon footprint through a decrease in energy usage

* Improved performance through employee motivation

* Improved financial results through employee productivity

* Increase in attendance level through visitors’ satisfaction

* Improved services through enhanced relationship with suppliers

* Global tendering through offering an ‘international language’

* Improved image through communicating good performance

* Improved integration through including local communities


ISO 20121 has filled an obvious gap in the event management industry, providing the foundation of a management system that will help any event related organisation to be financially, socially and environmentally responsible.

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