Understanding the new sustainability standard
There has been a groundswell of support from both venues and PCOs for a more sustainable way to run business events, but the introduction of new event sustainability standard ISO 20121 looks set to push the bar higher again, writes Sheridan Randall.
Following a two year process, the Australian events industry officially adopted the international standard ISO 20121: Event Sustainability Management Systems in June last year. The new standard can be adopted by event organisers, venues, a single event, or even the supply chain such as caterers and waste companies, and demonstrates a commitment to sustainability.
Giselle Radulovic, Sydney International Convention Exhibition and Entertainment Precinct project manager, was involved in the push to get the standard adopted in Australia in her role as an Australian committee member.
“Australia has always been quite open to improving its sustainability performance,” Radulovic says. “I think we have gone after a lot of the low hanging fruit, and the adoption of ISO 20121 helps affect a mindset change in how we do business.
“Certain parts of the industry have been really looking forward to it and have been doing things for quite a while already. The business events sector definitely needs to improve their operational practices, but they have probably been overwhelmed with information telling them how to be sustainable.”
Describing it as a “guidance document” that aids in identifying and managing sustainability issues when running an event, she says that the first thing needed is “commitment from the organisation”.
“You don’t have to adopt everything straight away,” she says. “Rather it means you would determine your sustainable development principles you want to be guided by and set a vision and a policy for your organisation.”
Meegan Jones, managing director operations at Greenshoot Pacific and president of the Sustainable Event Alliance, was also involved with the Australian committee, and says that by implementing the standard it takes the issue of sustainability to “the next level” from what was previously “ad-hoc or reactionary issues management”.
“What’s really important is that it imbeds the knowledge into the team,” Jones says. “Before it was only personal knowledge that people were drawing on to make sustainability related decisions and sometimes that may not be the best thing. It formalises and articulates that requirement and really pushes up to the front the importance of having the correct information to make available to the team to be able to make the right decisions.”
Jones says that the standard recognises that top management must be committed and “put their money where their mouth is”, which for PCOs could be the client.
The new standard is set to complement the well-established venue-based sustainability benchmarking program EarthCheck Certification, which has been adopted by around three quarters of Australia’s convention centres.
“[EarthCheck] is a great gauge… as to whether that venue has things in place… [but] is only one small piece in the event industry puzzle,” says Jones. “What the venue industry is going to see is a lot more savvy, more detailed and more informed event organisers requesting things off them based on the ISO 20121. It would be in venues interest to understand what that means and what they are likely to be asked.”
Currently dealing with 1300 business in over 70 countries, EarthCheck is a benchmarking, certification and environmental management program used by the travel and tourism industry. Established in 1987 by the Australian Government, it has since grown to be a leading international benchmarking organisation with 85 per cent of its business now outside of Australia.
Having international recognition is becoming increasingly important, for as André Russ, Vice-President Sales at EarthCheck, says “you can have the best national program on earth but the reality is that a lot of our clients are wanting an international program that crosses borders and is recognised as much in Chile as it is in Shanghai”.
“Everyone is well intentioned and I can see a shift in the last five years in terms of interest but it’s still hard to get people to reach their hand in their pocket,” Russ says. “The challenge for us is really showing where the value is and where the return is.”
Russ maintains EarthCheck’s appeal to its clients is based on “science and research”, saying the organisation is not a “brand”.
“We are able to provide our clients a narrative, we give them the data and credibility,” he says.
“EarthCheck is not going to solve a venue’s problems it’s going to be part of a solution. You need to involve your event organisers, and that is why we support the new ISO standard.”
Russ says that he is “not a fan of rating based programs because it just becomes very murky”.
“There are consultancies coming out offering ways to get a rating without actually having to change anything fundamentally. We are the only program in the world that recognises progress over time. You are either doing it or you’re not.”
The key to real change is looking at things “from a more holistic approach”. Adelaide Convention Centre, set to be the first convention centre in Australia to get gold certification at the end of the year, has a raft of initiatives in place.
“The reward for Adelaide is about commitment,” he says. “All their meeting packages are sustainable at no extra cost and it creates that environment for clients to feel as though they are all doing the right thing.”
With 73 per cent of buyers saying they would avoid a destination that has a poor record in environmental issues, according to Russ, Australia also needs to start thinking about a “destination approach”.
“We are working with the Mexican, Thai, Chinese and Macanese governments, [who] are all at destination level identifying specific tourism destinations that will also drive MICE,” he says.
“If you think it’s getting competitive now, you haven’t seen anything yet. Australia is well based as a destination, but I think it is going to become a really hot topic.”