Fiona Pelham talks about her role as Chair of ISO 20121.
You can also download a free guide to ISO 20121.
In June 2012 an ISO standard launched with the potential to transform the event industry. Understanding the background to what inspired this standard and the creation process which it has been through will provide the context for ISO 20121’s potential success.
Here, I will share my experience as Chair of ISO 20121, explain the catalyst for the standard, introduce a number of the key contributors who were part of the creation process and tell the story of how ISO 20121 Event Sustainability is a standard created by the event industry for the event industry, and is on a journey of making a significant difference.
In July 2005 when London won the right to host the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Head of Sustainability, David Stubbs, was keen to find a way to demonstrate that the sustainability commitments made in the bid were transformed into the most effective action. Over a glass of red wine at a London 2012 bid promotion event to business leaders in the City of London, David Stubbs met Arnold Pinter from the British Standards Institute and a conversation began about finding an innovative way to raise the profile of sustainability within the event industry.
“ISO 20121 Event Sustainability is a standard created by the event industry for the event industry” - Fiona Pelham, ISO 20121 Chair
In 2006 the British Standards Institute began work on the creation of BS 8901: Specification for a Sustainability Management System for Events. Catalysed by one of the world’s most watched global events it was now in the hands of a panel of volunteers from the event industry, standards industry and sustainability industry to develop.
My role as voluntary chair of the standard began in 2006. My background is evidence to the fact that BS 8901 and ISO 20121 were developed by volunteers with an understanding of the event industry. In 2005 I was running an event management agency focused on delivering events which were good for the environment and involved the local community.
While this concept was something my team and I were passionate about, we struggled to gain understanding from our supply chain (the venues, caterers etc.). Even some clients who had clear brand alignment with the concept of sustainability failed to consider what this meant for their event logistics. It is fair to say that in 2005, although the event industry was starting to become interested in the concept of sustainability, there was confusion and lack of understanding of the best way to start this journey.
In response to this challenge I worked with a team to set up a not for profit organisation called Positive Impact, to provide education on sustainability to the event industry and it was at one of those education sessions that an attendee suggested I attend a meeting taking place at the British Standards Institute about sustainability within events. At that time I was a 30 year old female event industry professional with no previous experience in chairing standards. This is not the credentials of a ‘traditional’ ISO chair and this is one of my first examples of how ISO 20121 is not just a ‘traditional’ standard.
In 2007 the first version of BS 8901 launched. The British Standards Institute team, led by Anne Hayes, recognised the potential for BS 8901 to become an international standard and after a period of review, and a number of case studies from event industry sustainability leaders in the UK, the second version of BS 8901 was launched in 2009.
The case study subjects trialed the standard and by sharing their experience they significantly raised its profile. The case study subjects included: Old Trafford Manchester United Football Ground, Lords Cricket Ground, and international events including the Manchester International Festival and Meeting Professionals International European Meetings and Events Conference. Months after launch of the second version there was evidence that BS 8901 was being implemented in North America and across Europe.
“BS 8901 and ISO 20121 were developed by volunteers with an understanding of the event industry” - Fiona Pelham, ISO 20121 Chair
In January 2010, work began on the creation of ISO 20121. Using the draft of BS 8901 as a starting point over 30 countries and liaison bodies gave their contributions to the creation of this international standard. Emma Wellman, Venue Services Manager at Earls Court and Olympia Venues, explains the experience of the UK delegation:
“Earls Court and Olympia were early adopters of BS 8901 so I was able to share this experience with the international committee members of ISO 20121. Creating an international standard was a challenging yet rewarding experience”.
Meetings took place in London, Paris, San Francisco, Tokyo and Sao Paulo. While those may sound like glamorous destinations, it should be noted that the role of chair and of representing country mirror committees is completely voluntary and a number of people showed great leadership and commitment to sustainability in the event industry to make this process possible. As Chair, the element which I am most proud of in the story of ISO 20121 is that the majority of representatives from each of the mirror committees were from the event industry.
These were people with a limited background in standards who took the time to learn and even implement the standard in order to create something which could be used by the event industry.
A number of countries were dedicated and regular contributors throughout the process including: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Norway, Spain, Sweden, UK, USA and liaison body Meeting Professionals International.
Masaharu Ohta, Executive Managing Director of the Japan Association for the Promotion of Creative Events explains:
“The international representatives from the event industry were encouraged to contribute to the development of ISO 20121 and the dedication of the many volunteers involved resulted, not only in the creation of a robust management system standard but also a guidance annex which will provide useful support for the event industry who are new to ISO standards”.
Explaining the catalyst and process of creation of the standard should make it clear that this is a standard created for the event industry by those who work in it and understand it. Unlike a business which could operate the same way 365 days a year the event industry is cyclical in nature and dependent on a significant supply chain. While every event is different, the process for an event is similar enough for a management system approach to work.
ISO 20121 provides a framework for all members of the event supply chain (venues, production companies, caterers etc.) to consider their social, economic and environmental impacts. It is relevant for all sizes of event from family barbecue to the Olympic Games and for all types of event: business, sport and cultural. The potential usage of this standard is therefore vast.
So what is the potential significant difference which ISO 20121 could have? Users of BS 8901 and trialees of ISO 20121 have communicated the following benefits:
1. Good business practice – it makes sense to take an organised processed approach to your economic, environmental and social impacts. What gets monitored and measured gets reduced so there are likely to be lower overheads.
2. Reputational advantage – using a recognised international framework will enable those leading in sustainability to demonstrate their actions in a credible and transparent way.
“London 2012 are proud to have been the catalyst for ISO 20121. This is a piece of legacy with the potential to transform how events around the world consider their economic, environmental and social impacts.” - David Stubbs, Head of Sustainability, London 2012
The story of the catalyst and creation of ISO 20121 is a great example of an industry taking a proactive approach and innovative a solution. The event industry now has an internationally recognised framework to address the issue of sustainability. This framework has been created through the leadership of those who understand and have experience in the event industry.
The final word on the potential for ISO 20121 should be from the catalyst to its creation David Stubbs Head of Sustainability for London 2012:
“London 2012 are proud to have been the catalyst for ISO 20121. This is a piece of legacy with the potential to transform how events around the world consider their economic, environmental and social impacts.”