The Annual Meeting in Davos saw the World Economic Forum awarded its ISO 20121 certificate: proof of its commitment to the idea that planning and delivery of the Forum’s flagship event should be done as sustainably as possible. But, for an event that draws business leaders and decision-makers to Davos from around the world to discuss key global challenges and envisage more sustainable solutions, there would seem to be a contradiction right there.

How can people talk about a sustainable world when there are thousands of invited delegates and media travelling to a remote Swiss town up in the mountains in the middle of winter? Add in all the materials involved: the energy, fuel and food consumed, waste produced and disruption to the normal routine of local citizens. Surely all that has a big impact?

Nor is it just Davos; think of all the global summits, expos, trade fairs, festivals and sports events. Multiplied up, that suggests industrial-scale impact. Yes, it’s possible to comfort oneself with the notion that it’s worth it for contributing to the greater good. However, that is no comfort to those affected, nor is it an excuse to ignore wastefulness. Being a “good thing” is not a license to operate in itself – something the worlds of sport, entertainment and international aid have recently all discovered. There has to be a matching sense of responsibility and care for the people and places wherever events are held. That’s precisely why the Forum was serious about the ISO 20121 certificate – and the wider event sector can learn some lessons from its efforts.

Davos's road to sustainability

Having identified the need (risk, impact and responsibility) and the opportunity (developing and spreading best practices at scale), the challenge is how to achieve this? For some years the Forum ran a series of environmental initiatives called “Greener Davos”. The problem was these did not connect directly to the Annual Meeting’s true impact.

But in late 2014, Michèle Mischler, then the Forum’s associate director of public affairs, decided it was time to do something more substantial. Her research led her to the relatively new international sustainability standard ISO 20121. This had been successfully pioneered by the organisers of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, as part of the drive to embed sustainability throughout their delivery. The new standard was specifically designed for the event sector, so could it work for Davos, too?

The process began with an independent expert review of the 2015 Annual Meeting. This identified a wide range of areas in need of improvement – such as waste, transport and stakeholder engagement – as well as areas where there was already evidence of good practice – such as energy, catering and workforce well-being. In particular, the review assessed the Forum’s operations in the light of the ISO 20121 standard, as a way of seeing what remained to be done.

This confirmed that there were opportunities to improve sustainability performance while recognising the need to maintain the high-quality of the Annual Meeting experience; and that a management systems approach would be the best path forward. The first step was defining and getting approval for the Forum’s Sustainability Policy to set the tone and direction of the initiative.

The 2016 Annual Meeting was used as a baselining exercise. This measured a wide range of attributes in order to identify initial targets and calculate an initial carbon footprint for the event. The Annual Meeting of 2017 saw the first implementation of new sustainability measures – notably on construction of temporary structures, reuse opportunities and engagement with local suppliers. This was also the occasion for the first formal internal audit, a key part of implementing ISO 20121.

While there were still areas of weakness, notably around performance evaluation, the progress and momentum of the initiative gave the Forum sufficient confidence to appoint a certification body (DNV Global) to carry out the third-party assessment, culminating in the confirmation of certification at the 2018 meeting.

Five key points

1. Reputation

Event owners and organisers are always at risk on the sustainability front, and ISO 20121 certification is an important part of building credibility and trust with stakeholders. This is not simply because of a label; behind the approach, there has to be serious intent and evidence of positive change.

2. Leverage

The standard provides a great tool for getting things done. Certification creates a definite target for staff to work towards; it can be an effective way of engaging with suppliers and partners; and it can also be deployed as a reason for change during negotiations with key stakeholders. Too often sustainability programmes suffer from not being mission-critical, and can fall by the wayside when difficulties arise. A well-integrated management systems approach attached to a formal standard is a good way of overcoming this. It is no longer just a project; it becomes your way of working.

3. Scope

Forum senior management admitted that the breadth of the programme surprised them at first. Being a sustainability management system, it encompassed wider issues than had been tackled under the original “Greener Davos” banner, especially in relation to areas like procurement, resource management and stakeholder engagement. In fact this breadth of scope helps managers realise that sustainability is a truly holistic and integrated discipline.

4. Targets

As a management-system standard, ISO 20121 is about processes rather than prescriptive measures. The danger with this is that there is no minimum basis for defining targets. Initiatives with unambitious, weak targets and narrowly defined scope can potentially achieve certification provided they have effective processes. This leads to an uneven level among certified event organisers, which could undermine how the standard is perceived.

5. Speed

Many organisations tend to be over-cautious and think it will take a long time to get ready for certification. In the case of the Forum, the initial aim was to be certified by 2020, the 50th anniversary of the first Annual Meeting. Achieving certification two years earlier was a bonus. In reality, implementing a management system predicated on continual improvement is not so difficult. It requires leadership commitment, careful planning and coordination and good communication both internally and with suppliers and partners, so that everyone buys into the programme. Get these things right and the rest will follow.

Sustaining sustainability

The key here is that there must be next steps. One of the dangers is that people think certification means job done. On the contrary, it is merely a proof point that an effective sustainability management system is in place. That is not a static point; it is a start, and a basis for future improvement.

On the opportunity side, why not extend the concept of the sustainable forum initiative to other Forum meetings around the world? What if this could influence Forum partners and members to look at how they deliver their own events? Suddenly, it’s possible to envisage these best practices in event management rippling across multiple organisations to make a real, positive difference.