How to Manage Sustainable Events: Introducing ISO 20121

5 min read
Events are fabulous. We live them, breathe them and love them. The environmental impact of events is, however, a serious concern for our industry. The ISO 20121 for sustainable event management is an internationally recognised framework that all event professionals can adopt.


The environmental impact of events is a serious concern for the event industry. Click To Tweet

What is ISO 20121?

The International Organisation for Standardization (ISO) is an independent, non-governmental body with representatives from around the world. Each country is allowed one representative. In Australia, the national accreditation body is Standards Australia.

The ISO develops ‘standards’ or guidelines – in consultation with members and relevant industry experts – to promote global organisational systems that are safe, consistent and reliable. In 2012 ISO developed ISO 20121 as the standard for sustainable event management systems around the world.

ISO 20121 has been developed as the standard for sustainable event management systems around the world. Click To Tweet

What is a Sustainable Event?

ISO defines sustainability as ‘how an organisation continues to run its activities in a commercially successful way whilst contributing towards a stronger and more just society and reducing its impact on the environment’ ( It’s more than just being ‘greener,’ and includes broader environmental, economic, and social factors.

The underlying principles for sustainable events are:

  • Events should have minimal impact on the environment – minimal energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and waste production
  • Events should benefit the community and not disrupt or disadvantage anybody
  • Events should still be able to fulfil their intended purpose and create positive economic benefits while having less impact on the planet

ISO 20121 for events is more than just being ‘green’. It holds broader environmental, economic, and social factors. Click To Tweet

Because Earth’s Worth It

That’s the simple answer to the question, why is sustainability important?

If you want to learn more about sustainability – or you’d like a keynote speaker to present on the topic – have a listen to the likes of Craig Reucassel, Neil Glentworth and Jamie Durie – our fave sustainability speakers!

To describe the problem in slightly more detail:

  • Scientists have attributed climate change to human activity
  • Burning fuel for electricity, mass agriculture and mass production are key culprits
  • Climate change is a big problem because it brings about extreme weather: droughts, floods, extreme heat
  • Extreme weather disrupts global water supply and food production
  • Pollution creates unhealthy air
  • Increased costs
  • More poverty and disease

Why Should I Consider Adopting ISO 20121?

This gives you a top level view of the problem. As Event Managers, we can do a lot to make a difference, even if it feels like our contribution is only a speck in a giant ocean of environmental challenges.

It’s important to note that the ISO 20121 focuses on systems that enable event professionals to continually improve their sustainability outcomes. It’s more than just a quick checklist, which can appear as a little cumbersome for implementation and isn’t a one-person initiative:

  • It needs senior management or board support
  • Business strategies, policies and processes need to change
  • Time needed to review suppliers and source ‘greener’ operators

The benefits of sustainable events still outweigh the investment of time and money. In fact, environmental initiatives can ultimately bring cost savings, with renewed focus on lowering energy usage and waste! Not to mention the extra clients and sponsorships that will likely come your way, courtesy of people appreciating that your organisation demonstrates corporate social responsibility.

Sustainable events outweigh the investment. Benefits include CSR, energy cost savings, and new clients and sponsors Click To Tweet

While the events industry is dipping its toe into fully-fledged sustainability systems, the momentum is growing and radically reduced carbon footprints will eventually be a minimum expectation for all events professionals.

How to Achieve ISO 20121

The steps required to achieve the standard will depend on where your event management systems currently sit, with respect to ISO 20121. In essence, the ISO says that businesses need to show consideration of

“all key financial, economic, social and environmental issues relevant to its operations and that focusing solely on environmental issues will not be sufficient.”
– (2018)

The ISO 20121 is the first port of call to clarify the steps needed for your organisation. The site lists a range of resources to purchase and download:

  • Checklist – is a good starting point to assess how your business is positioned for sustainable event management systems
  • Briefing – a 1 to 2 hour briefing presentation delivered in-person or online (Skype), designed to help you get started
  • In-house Training – half or full day intensive training course
  • Guide – summarises the ISO 20121 and gives a step-by-step roadmap
  • Toolkit – sample documents and templates to assist with the process of setting up systems
  • Certification – the ISO 20121 Team can assess your organisation and provide a formal Certificate of Conformance to ISO 20121

Love Events And The Planet Too

Although it’s not a simple, overnight task to set up sustainable event management systems that meet all the recommendations of the ISO 20121, it’s certainly a worthwhile endeavour. Check out the resources and make a start, even if on a small scale. That way you can continue to produce incredible events that tick all boxes – for guests, for clients, for business, for the community, for you – and events that are much kinder to the planet.

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About the Author

Gav George

When his school music teacher loaned him a cassette tape (yes, he's that old) of a fusion band, Gav entered the jazz world after years of classical music training. He was lucky enough to play with some of the greatest living jazz musicians and toured key festivals. Then Enhance founder Alison Clarke called on Gav to work on the company's marketing. This led him to his new passion of… marketing! Gav oversees Enhance's marketing initiatives, gets a kick out of connecting with clients and unearthing new talent. Gav still has that cassette tape, so if his music teacher reads this, please get in touch so he can return it.

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