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ISO 20121 – Q&A Session

This Q&A Session covers the most frequently asked questions about ISO 20121 Event Sustainability Management. It can be adapted to events of all sizes and types. The ISO 20121 certification will prove that your company is operating effectively and puts sustainability first when managing and delivering your events.

1. What is the purpose of ISO 20121 and why is it so important?

ISO 20121 provides the requirements for an Event Sustainability Management System alongside useful guidance. The purpose of this standard is to help organizations and event organizers develop a management system that can be used to allow events to be delivered sustainably, focusing on many relevant issues related to environmental matters, biodiversity, and energy management alongside the economic and societal impact of events. ISO 20121 focuses on sustainability objectives and how event organizers can truly demonstrate the sustainability of their events.

Events of all kinds can take a heavy toll on resources, society, and the environment, often generating significant waste. In addition to promoting more responsible consumption, ISO 20121 has been developed to relieve the strain on local infrastructure and utilities, reducing the potential for conflict in communities where events are hosted.

With the world recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and the resumption of many events, a real opportunity has arisen for event organizers to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability through the application of a well-established and recognized standard such as ISO 20121.

2. What types of events is ISO 20121 intended for?

ISO 20121 is a standard written flexibly, meaning it can be used for any kind of event, large or small. Any event that can have a potential social, environmental, or economic impact can be covered under ISO 20121.

For organizations that organize multiple events, this can be an excellent standard, as it will provide a framework for delivering many events consistently in line with sustainable development goals and ambitions and will allow the organization to clearly demonstrate these commitments.

3. What challenges can ISO 20121 help to overcome?

On the environmental side, events can pose many challenges, including increased waste, pollution, energy use, and emissions through transportation. 

On the social side, events can generate economic challenges (e.g., increased prices in areas hosting events, negatively impacting local people) and potential conflict due to a lack of opportunities and social exclusion. 

ISO 20121 requires event organizers to consider “risks and opportunities” with a very specific focus on the following::

  • Environmental: resource utilization, materials choice, resource conservation, emissions reduction, biodiversity, and nature preservation, releases to land, water, and air.
  • Social: labor standards, health and safety, civil liberties, social justice, local community, indigenous rights, cultural issues, accessibility, equity, heritage, and religious sensitivities.
  • Economic:  return on investment, local economy, market capacity, shareholder value, innovation, direct and indirect economic impact, market presence, economic performance, risk, fair trade, and profit sharing.

As ISO 20121 is multipronged, many kinds of organizations can use this standard and the guidance within it to develop a proactive and positive approach to tackling these multiple challenges.

4. How does event sustainability relate to a wider sustainability strategy?

Many organizations may have long-term sustainability goals and objectives that they aim to deliver in many areas; this is sometimes referred to as Environmental, Social, and Governance or ESG. ISO 20121 allows organizations to put clear processes in place that ensure suitable oversight and governance of their events, ensuring those events meet tangible sustainability goals. 

An ISO 20121 management system can essentially provide the tools and processes to actually deliver many of the strategic goals that the responsible organizations of today are setting for themselves.

5. Does ISO 20121 help with the SDGs?

ISO 20121 is directly linked to the UN Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs).  In particular, this standard is targeted at 11 of the 17 SDGs as follows:

  • 3. Good health and well-being
  • 5. Gender equality
  • 6. Clean water and sanitation
  • 7. Affordable and clean energy
  • 8. Decent work and economic growth
  • 9. Industry, innovation, and infrastructure
  • 10. Reduced inequalities
  • 11. Sustainable cities and communities
  • 12. Responsible consumption and production
  • 13. Climate action
  • 16. Peace, justice, and strong institutions
Implementing an ISO 20121 Management System will provide organizations with the tools to support many of these wide-ranging SDGs.

6. Can ISO 20121 be integrated with other ISO standards?

Yes, ISO 20121 is structured in the same way as many of the popular standards, such as ISO 9001 and ISO 14001. An ISO 20121 management system would be an ideal extension to other sustainability management systems, such as a wider Environmental Management System (based on ISO 14001). 

Any organization with an existing Environmental Management System involved in events could easily extend its management system to achieve certification for both standards.

7. Which are the most important clauses of ISO 20121?

ISO 20121 follows the structure of the main ISO management systems. However, of specific importance in ISO 20121 are:

4.5 Sustainable development principles, statement of purpose, and values

This clause asks an organization to carefully consider its sustainable development principles, purpose, and values. This thinking and subsequent formalization into a written statement form the basis of all sustainable development actions being taken about the events being organized.  Such a statement provides event organizers with a clear set of principles to act from but can also be used to communicate with customers the values and principles of the organizers and those involved in the delivery of the event(s).

6.2 Event sustainability objectives and how to achieve them

Events can have many different impacts and benefits, and therefore any sustainable event management system must have clear objectives. Some may be short-term, event-specific objectives (such as reducing waste or emissions), whilst others may be strategic and longer-term over a number of events. 

In any case, having unambiguous objectives allows an organization to clearly plan for success, and with clear metrics (see clauses 9.1 and 9.2), ensure the achievement of objectives through formal measurement. Such objectives can also be clearly communicated to customers, again allowing event organizers to provide tangible examples of their sustainability commitments and targets. 

8.3 Supply chain management

Many events involve multiple suppliers at various levels in the supply chain. Whilst the event organizers may have clear objectives and excellent intentions, this can only be achieved by ensuring all parties in the supply chain play their part. 

Clause 8.3 asks event organizers to identify their suppliers and how they affect the achievement of objectives and sustainable development principles. The clause requires the event organizers to define requirements based on these objectives and principles that suppliers must meet and to develop processes for evaluating and assessing suppliers against such requirements. 

An ISO 20121 management system will allow event organizers to develop clear processes for effectively selecting the right suppliers with the aim of building long-term value-adding supplier relationships with parties that align with the same sustainable development goals.

8. How is sustainable development defined in ISO 20121?

ISO defines sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This is quite a wide-ranging statement and considers many things, such as economic issues, environmental impacts, and the impact on societal issues such as inequality, inclusivity, and social progress.

9. What should an organization determine when planning its event sustainability objectives?

When considering event sustainability objectives, organizations should clearly identify the purposes and scope of their management system. The scope may consider the types of events that are relevant (based on impact, size, or profile) and the key areas and processes that will form the scope. They should closely examine the requirements of clause 4.5, considering what their sustainable development principles are alongside their statement of purpose and values. It is these principles, an understanding of purpose, and values that will truly help an organization establish its objectives.

In addition, thoroughly understanding risk and opportunity from the three angles outlined in question six and examining legal, contractual, and regulatory obligations as required in clause 6.1.3 also provides a key input to defining and agreeing upon objectives.

10. How does the certification audit against ISO 20121 help organizations?

Implementing an ISO 20121 management system provides a platform for improving efficiency surrounding event management while directly addressing the concerns of multiple stakeholders. Independent certification demonstrates that an organization is committed to multiple aspects of sustainability. This can be particularly relevant to organizations with investors who are interested in the overall ESG position of the organization. 

Certification may also be a pre-requisite to doing business, and in a world where the interest and consciousness of sustainability are growing, more and more customers will be looking for assurance that organizations are operating in a sustainable manner. Certification can help instill this confidence and drive the continual improvement needed.

11. What are some tips and advice to get ready for a certification audit against ISO 20121?

To prepare for a certification audit, organizations should ensure that they are fully familiar with the requirements of the standard.  

In particular, they should ensure they have a clear scope and objectives based on their sustainable development principles and risks. 

Being prepared for an audit is key; ensuring that levels of understanding and awareness within the organization are clear and having the ability to locate and present evidence of conformity is critical. An organization may wish to undertake a pre-certification audit to gauge readiness for the certification audit, plugging any gaps identified before the Stage 1 audit. 

About the Responder

Graeme Parker, MSECB auditor for ISO 9001; ISO/IEC 20000-1; ISO 20121; ISO 22301; ISO/IEC 27001; ISO/IEC 27701; CSA STAR

Graeme Parker is a Technology, Security, and Risk Management professional with highly valuable business and technical skills obtained in high-profile private and public sector organizations.

Mr. Parker has proven experience working with multiple management systems and risk management frameworks. Since 2017, he has been conducting audits on behalf of MSECB for the following standards: ISO 9001, ISO/IEC 20000-1, ISO 20121, ISO 22301, ISO/IEC 27001, ISO/IEC 27701, and CSA STAR.

Furthermore, Mr. Parker has international experience, having delivered projects and audits in over twenty-five countries worldwide.

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