Whether they are conferences or galas, concerts or company retreats, events are usually pretty wasteful. They often consume large amounts of energy and resources. For instance, the average 500-person conference can produce as much as two tonnes of landfill waste in just one day.
However, it doesn’t have to be that way. In 2012, the International Standards Organization (ISO) set an industry standard for all events - ISO 20121 - that provides a road map to climate-friendly events. This international model prescribes a management system approach that can help any event-related organization reduce its environmental footprint and become more socially responsible, while maintaining the viability of the event.
The earliest and most talked about adoption of the ISO 20121 standard took place when the International Olympic Committee pledged that the London 2012 Olympics (and every Olympic Games thereafter) would be produced according to this set of sustainable management principles. Taking the process and level of effort to implement the standard seriously, London created an independent commission to monitor the environmental impact of the Games.
The commission found that although the efforts in London were tremendous, the standard's legacy would depend on future commitments by - and its impact on - events across the globe. Future host cities needed to create bids that showcased their sustainable city initiatives, and the events industry needed to step up by offering more 'green' event products and services.
After the London Olympics demonstrated how events can get serious about sustainability, the whole industry indeed followed suit. Groups formed representing all sectors (suppliers, venues, producers, caterers, transportation providers etc.) and conferences began adopting a new way of doing business, the ‘green event’ way.
There was a rush for hotels, venues and stadiums to earn green building certifications and install new systems for managing waste, energy, materials and water. Proposals for vendors started to feature questions about the vendors’ sustainability practices and certifications. New categories of eco suppliers started to produce marketing items, from 'lanyards made from 100% recycled soda bottles' to water 'pouches' made from seaweed as an alternative to plastic bottles for marathon runners.
A lot has happened since 2012. In 2015, the UN adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which mapped out 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs cover social and economic development issues, including poverty, hunger, health, education, global warming, gender equality, water, sanitation, energy, urbanization, environment, and social justice.
That same year, the world’s first comprehensive climate agreement, the Paris Agreement, was negotiated and adopted by 196 state parties. This global movement for climate action triggered a similar response in consumers, who demanded that the companies they support 'walk the talk' on sustainability. Corporate social responsibility offices started to sprout up in medium- to large-sized companies, and it became more common for the word ‘sustainability' to appear in corporate mission statements.
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Over the past five years, the adoption of the international standard has started to take root. High-profile events, ranging from the World Economic Forum in Davos to The Atlantic Cup, embraced ISO 20121 and achieved compliance by implementing comprehensive environmental management systems. Most recently, the Global Climate Action Summit set a new bar for the industry by earning third-party certification to ISO 20121, the highest level of certification possible.
Their plan featured aggressive environmental targets, including utilizing a 100% zero-emission vehicle fleet and sourcing the majority of menu items from within 100 miles of the venue. In what is also believed to be a world first for an event of its size, the Summit’s Sustainability Road Map tied each impact area back to the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals, including SDG 13, which relates to the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change.
The World Economic Forum’s community of Young Global Leaders (YGLs) met this week in San Francisco and took part in their annual summit, organized according to an ambitious sustainability plan with a series of objectives around food sourcing, waste diversion, education and energy conservation. Among the efforts will be a carbon neutrality commitment, marking the first time a YGL event will be certified as carbon-neutral.
How can you help? Next time you attend an event, look for statements about ‘green’ event initiatives from the organizers and for suggestions about how to reduce your footprint as an attendee (transport options, green hotel choices and digital communications rather than printed materials). If the event doesn’t have them, let organizers know that climate action is important to you. As with all industries, increasing public demand for sustainability will help make events better for the planet.