Stand up and be counted

Stand up and be counted

Getting ISO certification to recognise the sustainable credentials of your business isn’t as expensive – or as complicated – as you might think. Stuart Wood reports


We could forgive you for not remembering the name – it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

But ISO 20121: Sustainable Events serves an important role in the events industry: it is currently the only internationally recognised standard for sustainability in our sector. That means that if your business has ISO 20121 certification, it has demonstrated its ability to address sustainability issues to the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO).

In an age of increasing climate awareness, this is no longer just an optional extra, but a necessity. Being able to prove the sustainable credentials of your business can separate it from those that simply talk the talk. There are, however, still many misconceptions surrounding ISO certification, and many small event businesses write the standard off, thinking they don’t have the time or the resources to make use of it.

Using ISO 20121 doesn’t just mean paying to have a team of professional auditors inspect your business. There are three levels of ISO certification, and the first only costs around USD$130: you can be first-party certified, second-party certified, or third-party certified.

First-party certification simply means paying a one-time fee to purchase the standard, and putting the process into practice yourself. There is a wealth of information to be found in the standard, and much of it can be implemented to make your business more sustainable at little or no cost.

Second-party certification means getting another business in your field which is also ISO certified to check yours. Again, this doesn’t have to cost anything: it can be a mutually beneficial exercise for two companies to exchange their knowledge around sustainability.

Third-party certification is what most people think of when they think of the ISO. This means inviting a team of independent inspectors to audit your business, ensuring it complies with standard requirements. There is a cost associated with this service, but the upside is being able to demonstrate that your business’ sustainability practice has been independently checked.

“The biggest myth around the ISO is the money myth,” says Fiona Pelham, CEO of Positive Impact. “Purchasing the standard itself only comes with a small cost, but the implementation of it is where you get the value. The key thing is to talk to your suppliers, interested parties, and anyone else in your network. Get them involved, and ask them what they think the biggest sustainable issues are. If you start doing that, you will benefit.”


Smyle’s hybrid approach

Using ISO 20121 effectively is about more than just paying for a sustainability certificate, then: it is about demonstrating you can integrate sustainable practice into every level of your business. This is something that Rick Stainton, CEO of international agency Smyle, knows well.

Smyle was among the early adopters of ISO 20121, acquiring third-party certification by the British Standards Institute (BSI) and setting up the Sustainable Events Summit in 2013. The agency chose not to renew its certification when it expired, however, and Stainton explains why: “We adopted a hybrid approach, taking forwards what we think are the key principles of the ISO, but doing it in a way we feel is appropriate for a creative agency that goes at quite a dynamic pace.”

Stainton raises some doubts about whether the rigorous auditing process of third-party certification is suited to small and medium-sized events companies. He says: “The principle of the measurements and the communication and reporting is very relevant, but if you want to change habits, and makes processes and behaviour more sustainable – in our experience it sucked a disproportionate amount of energy, resources and momentum away from the doing.”

The auditing process, perhaps, needs to be adjusted to the fast-paced and changeable nature of the events industry. Pelham adds: “Some of the auditors are more used to going into a company that – for example – makes cakes every day, and does the same thing at 9 o’clock. We know the events industry isn’t like that.”

A new standard

Now is a good time to be thinking about the audit process, as the ISO is currently in the planning phase for a second standard around sustainable events: ISO 22379, Security and resilience – Guidelines for hosting and organising large city-wide events.

As its (equally catchy) name implies, the new standard will be zooming out to look at how major events impact cities and countries on a macro level. Lars Erik Jensen, Project Manager on ISO 22379, says it will “help [them] to understand the impact of hosting a major event, both from a social and financial perspective, but also from a sustainable perspective.”

Any event professionals who think they have relevant knowledge or experience can contribute to the construction of the ISO. Jensen says: “To get involved, you can contact your national body of ISO and ask to be registered as an expert in the ISO work.”

Likewise, event professionals in the UK can contribute feedback on the existing standard. The British Standards Institute is currently searching for people to join its national committee, providing feedback in order to improve ISO 20121: Sustainable Events.

In the events industry, we hear a lot of talk around the issue of sustainability. If you want to be part of the change, we urge you to consider whether ISO certification can make your business more sustainable, or whether you can contribute your expertise to making the standards as effective as they can be.

Stuart Wood is a news reporter across the Mash Media editorial portfolio. He writes for CMW alongside sister publications Conference News, Exhibition News, Access All Areas and Exhibition World.