22 August 2014

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Why sustainability makes good business sense


By Gavin Haines

With companies sharpening up their CSR policies and looking for more sustainable ways to do business, event organisers need to be more eco-aware. Even small changes can make a big difference.

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Sustainability is a bit like the offside rule. We’ve all heard of it. We’d like to think we know what it means but, if we’re completely honest, we’d rather not try to explain it. Show of hands: who thinks event organisers need to think about the environment? We’d all swing our arm up for that one. But to be put on the spot and tell a roomful of people what you really think makes an event green? That’s cold sweats time.  

‘The UK events industry has the opportunity to be a world leader in sustainability, but I don’t think the issue is getting the focus it deserves,’ says Fiona Pelham, MD of Positive Impact, a not-for-profit organisation that gives eco advice to event organisers and businesses. ‘A lot of companies don’t know what to do or where to start, so they just avoid the whole issue.’ 

Time to pull our heads out of the sand, then. Earlier this spring, almost 200 industry professionals, including corporate event organisers from Innocent, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco and Nestlé, gathered at the inaugural Sustainable Events Summit to do exactly that. At the end of a day’s worth of talks on sustainable business practices in the suitably eco-friendly venue 30 Euston Square, some 70% of them agreed that sustainability is now ‘non-negotiable’. An issue that can’t be ignored.

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So, how do we go greener? Let’s look at one man who’s leading the way: Nick Mead, director of Eden Caterers and part-time beekeeper. His bees provide his business with delicious honey, and they’re a wonderful example of corporate sustainability. When his chefs need honey for one of their dishes, they simply walk to the hive in the car park and collect it. It’s free, there are no food miles and the sweet nectar is a direct result of his bees pollinating the local flora. And because this operation has a positive environmental impact, other companies like hiring Eden, which raises the company profile and helps bring in more business.

Organising a sustainable event

Of course, Eden Caterers doesn’t run on honey, but small eco-friendly practices like these, implemented throughout a business, make a huge difference. Contrary to popular belief, organising a greener event doesn’t have to be a massive undertaking. It can be as simple as booking a more eco-friendly venue, using tap water instead of bottled, switching to caterers with local suppliers and organising electric taxis to ferry your guests – in other words, sharing the green credentials of other businesses.

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However, you should beware of companies that are ‘greenwashing’, or telling white lies about their eco credentials. Do they have official documentation from the British Standards Institute (BSI)? Look out for ISO 14001 certificates, which are awarded to companies that have demonstrated a commitment to environmental management in their operations. Don’t be afraid to interrogate potential suppliers either. What is their recycling policy? Where do their steaks come from? How are they cutting down on carbon emissions?  

‘You’ve got to really put these people to the test,’ says Mead. ‘Ask them to explain how they do things and maybe visit their premises to have a proper look around. If they are not happy with that, something isn’t right.’

Setting the standard

Like the regeneration of Stratford and the profusion of cyclists around the city, sustainability in the events industry is a legacy of the 2012 Olympics. As London battled to host the sporting bonanza, organisers tried everything to woo the judges, including a promise to be the most sustainable Games ever.

When London won the bid, the organising committee’s head of sustainability, David Stubbs, realised there was no way to prove that sustainability had been considered. So Stubbs had a conversation with the BSI, who in turn agreed to create an ISO standard for exactly that purpose.

After years of consultation with the events industry around the world, ISO 20121 was created. Introduced in time for the Games, it laid down the first international marker for sustainable events – and among its creators were Lord’s Cricket Ground, venue 15 Hatfields, and Eden.

While an ISO 14001 certificate isn’t specific to the events industry, ISO 20121 is, and it puts the onus on companies that host events to get their own house in order.

‘People can no longer put their heads under the carpet and ignore the facts,’ says Warren Campbell, MD of 15 Hatfields. ‘Sustainability pays and companies [not taking it seriously] will be left behind.’

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It’s a long road to being ISO 20121 certified and many people are put off at the first step, not least because the language used by the BSI in its literature is enough to induce a coma. Also off-putting is the fact that there is no checklist to follow.

‘It’s not something a company goes about meeting the requirements of,’ explains David Fatscher of the BSI. Instead events companies must demonstrate to judges how they are being more sustainable: what is their recycling policy? What have they done to save energy? By how much have they reduced waste?’

There is much more to it than that, of course – about 200 pages more – and if businesses don’t have time to decipher the literature there are consultants out there specialising in ISO 20121.

Anatomy of a green venue

The Crystal is among the world’s greenest buildings. Here’s what makes it so

Ground-source heat pumps supply virtually all of the venue’s heating and most of its cooling. Almost every space in the venue has access to natural daylight, meaning minimal artificial light is needed. Rainwater is collected from the roof and stored in a 30m³ underground storage tank. It is then used for irrigation and toilet flushing. Every single light adjusts automatically – according to daylight and human presence – to give comfortable brightness levels without wasting electricity.

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CO2 emissions for the Siemens offices in The Crystal are around 70% lower than in comparable offices in the UK. It is a 100% electric building, around 20% of which is generated by the 1,580m2 of solar photovoltaic roof panels that cover two-thirds of the roof. There are standard electric car charging points on site for 12 cars and one rapid charging unit.

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH, based at 15 Hatfields) has an advisory services team which analyses companies and provides a realistic overview of what they need to do to meet the ISO 20121 standards.

Positive Impact also offers support for companies looking to put on more sustainable events. Its website (positiveimpactevents.co.uk) has a wealth of resources and case studies to guide businesses through sustainability and ISO 20121.

‘There is an opportunity here for first movers – the people who start implementing this now will have a competitive advantage,’ says Pelham. ‘You will save money, create a brand that is valued more and ultimately win more business.’

That’s exactly what Campbell has achieved at 15 Hatfields – his meticulous eye for sustainable detail is legendary. Guests sit on cushions made from recycled seatbelts, walk on carpets of Kashmiri goat hair and write with pens made from recycled CD cases. 

The rewards

Campbell’s innovation has helped make the CIEH headquarters one of the most sustainable spaces in London. Sure, his efforts have cost a bit more in the short term and, yes, maybe people did laugh when he ordered a reception desk made exclusively from old bottles of Lenor, but he’s the one laughing now.

‘I’m turning away so much business at the moment and that’s purely because we’re sustainable.’

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By simply encouraging staff to be more energy efficient, Campbell has managed to reduce 15 Hatfields’ electricity bill by 15% in a single year. That equated to an £11,000 saving, which could pay for one hell of an office party.

‘Sustainability pays – it’s a no-brainer,’ says Campbell. ‘Our clients buy into the fact that they are having an event at a sustainable venue, so when they are blue chip and they have a corporate social responsibility agenda, we are a quick win for them.’

Campbell advises anyone thinking of following suit to take their time. ‘Break it down into manageable chunks and don’t try to change everything at once because you will be overwhelmed,’ he says. ‘You can’t save the world overnight.’

Eco events check list

Quick and easy steps to green up your events


If your buffet has jetted around the world enough to qualify for air miles, this will reflect badly on you. Hire caterers that source locally and responsibly.


Have your guests taken 100 different taxis to get to the same event? Consider hiring a bus or booking a venue close to the office.


Jumping onto the sustainability credentials of a green venue is an easy win for your business and may prove a good talking point. 


Chances are the venues you use could be doing more to recycle. Monitor everything thrown out and see if it can be sent off for recycling. 

Bottled water

Ditch it! Ask for glass jugs with ice, lemon and tap water instead. It’ll be far more refreshing than bottled water and better for the environment. 


LED lighting uses much less energy than older bulbs – if you’re hiring lighting in, make sure your supplier uses the energy-efficient kind.

Air conditioning

If it’s warm, try opening the windows – the fresh air will be much better for your delegates and the extra oxygen will keep them alert.


There are many suppliers offering recycled stationery. If you’re providing your own branded pens and pencils, be sure to use them.

Reduce waste

Do you really need that flip chart or would a PowerPoint presentation do? Think about your paper usage, which is still booming in the digital age.

This article was first published in Square Meal Venues & Events, spring 2014.

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