ISO 20121 Gets a Refresh

iso 20121 Apr 08, 2024

This month the updated international standard on sustainable event management systems has been released.

First established alongside the London 2012 Olympics and now updated in time for the Paris 2024 Olympics. The standard is suitable for all sizes and types of events, and the system established only needs to be as complex and extensive as the event itself.

The standard isn’t a checklist or a how-to-guide on operational impacts management. Rather, it offers a strategic and operational framework, so environmental and socio-economic issues and impacts are considered and embedded across all functional areas and at all times in the event life cycle. 

It means sustainable event management isn’t reliant on one inspired individual within the event team, who constantly battles to engage the rest of the team who are not considering sustainability issues in their day to day work. 

Download my updated Short Guide to Decoding ISO 20121

What’s Changed?

The main change is updating the text to reflect enhanced understanding and maturity of environmental, social and governance (ESG) approaches today. This includes aspects which were previously underrepresented or missing from the standard. 

It also reflects the increasing understanding of stakeholders and society of sustainable development concerns and sustainability issues, and the expectations for responsible governance of organisations and stewardship of the natural environment. 

New issues highlighted and previously not included in the main text, are terms such as circularity, climate change, environmental resilience, digital responsibility, human and child rights, mental health, wellbeing, civil liberties, diversity, and economic inclusion.

When the standard was first introduced, we didn’t have the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement, and no countries had formal Net Zero ambitions. The plastic pollution crisis (while it already existed) was not at the top of mind and few protocols were in place, whereas now we have widespread bans on single-use plastics and global attention to addressing plastic pollution in our environment including an impending international treaty.

The previous standard only had cursory mention of human and child rights, and now there is a new annex dedicated to this topic. 

The concept of double materiality was not widely used, with this important sustainability consideration now increasingly applied. (this means not only looking at the impact the event could have on society and nature, but how issues in society and nature could impact the event’s success (e.g. extreme weather events, social unrest and political imperatives).


There has been a softening of requirements on documentation, to allow the organisation to choose the most suitable way to establish, maintain, communicate and continually improve its event sustainability management system. This is taking down a previously considerable barrier, especially when it came to auditors assessing performance against the standard in literal translation rather than drawing on contextual understanding of how an event organiser operates.

Supply Chain Management

The Supply Chain management section has been updated and includes a requirement to request that suppliers show evidence for sustainability requirements in the procurement process. It also now requires consideration in procurement processes to ensure it is manageable for small businesses to complete.


A new addition to the standard is that promotional activities, products and services offered by sponsors must be aligned to the organisation or event’s sustainable development principles, objectives and values. Also that sponsors or other organisations offering in-kind must also be considered suppliers in the governance of sustainability scrutiny and procurement processes.

Governing Bodies

Alongside Top Management, 'governing bodies' has been added. This acknowledges that in many situations there's a higher authority, such as a head office, sports federation, or IGO that may own the event and require or license the organiser to deliver it.

Management Review

There has been a strengthening of the Management Review process, mainly around the timing and documenting the outcomes of these reviews. This is important as there has been some tendency to ‘set and forget’ and having this requirement strengthened means the continual engagement of top management in the event sustainability management system. 


The annexes have had some additions and improvements. There is now an extended list of likely legal and other requirements, and a list of ISO and other standards and frameworks which may have some applicability to establishing an event sustainability management system. The table listing potential sustainability issues has been updated and modernised.


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