Setting a sustainable standard

Expert Opinion
Setting a sustainable standard

How does the events industry showcase its green credentials without increasing the cost for its clients?

For any industry looking to improve its sustainability credentials, there needs to be a way of demonstrating them to the outside world. If the events industry wants to be seen as green, it must show it is actively instituting a culture that brings benefits via reduced energy usage and waste disposal, corporate social responsibility schemes, employee rewards and operating within certain ethical parameters.

To do this, the qualitative must evolve into the quantifiable, and of course standards are the best way to achieve this. Currently, and for the foreseeable future, the leading internationally-respected sustainability standard is ISO20121.
“If the event industry associations all recognise that all of their members should be implementing ISO20121, then the culture would shift,” says Fiona Pelham, MD of UK-based education provider Positive Impact.

“When an ISO is launched, the general expectation is that all of that industry will use it because it is a globally recognised practice.
“Ultimately, this is because ISO20121 is not the result of a small group’s suggestions for showing sustainable practice. It is a global standardising body that has made a standard that changes the culture of how you work.

“But building a culture in an industry that people expect to see in practice brings with it both challenges and solutions. First among these challenges is the fact that people want the badge, to show they have been certified, but they don’t necessarily want to do the prerequisite work.”

As Pelham is quick to point out, change comes from implementing the standard, not from getting the badge. “The process of getting the badge is a challenge, and understanding the process is a challenge too,” she says. “In this industry we’ve never had certification requirements, let alone an ISO where there are three levels of certification.”
So what are those levels?

The first is whereby a company self-certifies and declares it has implemented the standard and shows evidence. For this the industry must recognise the people who are self-certifying and declaring certain things they should expect. “People should have access to the policy of the companies that have declared this, and the policy should have their objective on it,” says Pelham.
The second level is second party, whereby someone you know – and the rest of the industry holds in high-esteem – checks you. Essentially a peer review, from a body such as a respected industry association.

The third is where third party certification company checks the company looking to achieve the ISO standards. These companies must be independently accredited by the national governments. So they must be checked to ensure they are treating everyone the same way. This overcomes, to some extent, any concerns a company can simply buy the certification rather than truly institute the measures.

One of the problems (of basic economics, sadly) is that the first venue or company that wants to be certified typically gets accreditation at a price that makes it an affordable prospect for others in the industry. While affordability may not serve as an enticement to embracing a sustainable culture in our industry, prohibitive costs certainly act as a deterrent. But as such standardisation becomes commonplace, demand increases and accreditation becomes necessary to compete on even terms, the increased need leads to an increased price. And in order to cover the price, the cost will ultimately be transferred to the clients using the venue or company. They need to be recouped somewhere. Suddenly a company has to ask itself whether being seen as Green, or more affordable, will benefit stakeholders.

Second-party observation is now seen by some as the optimal approach to building a green events industry. As Pelham observes, the second party involved will understand the events industry, whereas the third party independents may not necessarily understand it.

Costs are also likely to be lower because they understand the industry and the rigour of the certifications may not be at the same level. This overcomes any concerns about third-party profiteering doing its bit to dissuade companies from embracing this certification. Additionally, the money will stay within the events industry.
Regardless, the need to overcome this deterrent inherent in introducing and maintaining accreditation poses a very real problem for an industry that comes under criticism for its perceived profligate use of material and energy. Short of controlled pricing and oversight of these assessments and assessors, in much the same way as schools are inspected, the benefits risk being outweighed by the costs.

Pelham claims that if the leaders of some global events did first-party certification and second-party certification, the change will come from implementing the standard not from getting the badge. “If the whole global industry said for the next five years we’re not going to be third-party certified, but we’re all going to try an implement the standard, then that would be good enough for me, because change would happen,” says Pelham. “At the moment people are resisting implementing the standard because of the certification costs.”
“It’s an easy excuse to say we don’t have the budget to learn how to do something differently, and pay for a third party to come in and check us. So if we remove the cost barrier for the first few years, then at least there’s no excuse,” Pelham adds.

At the moment it’s all about best practice. But looking further forward, our industry will come to be measured against the same stadards in other industries. While some naysayers in the event industry would like to say ‘nobody asks for it, it’s not very important’, if we look outside of the events industry at how the visitors are changing, sustainability strategies are becoming non-negotiable. “It seems very obvious that our industry will trade on its sustainability credentials,” says Pelham. “We’re risking things by not making it mandatory, and after all, we have an international standard. It’s essential that we embrace it.”

Key to all of this is the need to show imagination and inventiveness in developing a sustainable culture.

Clients want to see accreditation, to know the venue or company they partner with works hard to involve local organisations.

“We need to get the associations talking about it and rewarding the members that do it, you get the head of the client and supply chain to know about it, and to expect it and be asking for it in procurement,” says Pelham. “You make the government understand what the event industry is, and the standard that is available will eventually be requested. It will very quickly filter down to the organisers; at the moment it is just an optional added extra.”

Conference & Meetings World is published for the international conference and meetings industry. It tackles the issues facing organisers of international events. The editorial is independent, fresh and news driven, with a global reach.