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March 11, 2009

Elizabeth Henderson:Why MPI is backing BS8901 to drive towards a global sustainability standard

Leadership and good business. These are the reasons why Meeting Professionals International (MPI) wanted to implement British Standard 8901 (BS8901) for sustainable events at The European Meetings and Events Conference 2008 in London. By implementing this new standard, we demonstrated both thought and practice leadership to our community, and were able to elevate the conversation around sustainability. By developing a case study afterwards, we were able to provide resources so others could follow where we led. Sustainability not only fits in with the commitment MPI made to the United Nations Global Compact, it is a business strategy for the organisation.

Along the way, we made some discoveries about the process of being certified under a standard. It forces you to look at how you do business. In many companies, people simply do things because that is the way they have always been done. There isn’t necessarily any strategy or structure behind it. Implementing a standard means that processes get documented, a structure is developed, and stakeholders (internal and external) are drawn into be part of that process. The organisation becomes tighter, more efficient in its use of resources.

There is, I think, a misconception about BS8901. It is not all about the “greening” of events, or, preferably, environmentally sustainable events, although that is a part of it. It is about being efficient with resources, enhancing relationships and building stronger communities.  BS8901 defines sustainability as “an enduring, balanced approach to economic activity, environmental responsibility and social progress”. It shares processes with more well-known standards, such as ISO14001, the environmental management system. The difference is that this standard also considers social and economic factors. Decisions must be weighed with consideration for all three areas.

Outsourced sustainability

There have been challenges. The first time we went through the certification process, we were guided by a third-party organisation. This meant that although all the processes were in place, we hadn’t really internalised a standardised way of working. The certifier noted we had “outsourced sustainability”. The standard is written to encourage continuous improvement, so we had to prove for our conference this year in Torino that we had addressed this concern. This was one of the drivers in the creation of the position I now hold, director of corporate social responsibility. I became the sustainability lead for all of our major events, encouraging the teamwork and engagement necessary to implement the system.

Other challenges include engagement of stakeholders in the process. To set sustainability objectives, stakeholders (whether they are attendees, suppliers, sponsors, speakers or staff) need to be encouraged to identify possible sustainability issues that affect the event. So far, we have received limited feedback from these sources, although I am encouraged that the feedback increased several times over from the 2008 London event to the 2009 event in Torino.

Our goal is to implement the BS8901 management system for all our major events going forward. The next challenge is implementing the standard for our largest event, the World Education Congress, which this year takes place 11-14 July in Salt Lake City, in the US.


BS8901 was developed so the London Olympics in 2012 would have a sustainable event standard to guide it. The goal is to create an international standard, or ISO, by the time 2012 rolls around. This will give the Olympics the prestigious position of being ISO certified under a standard that is not only an environmental standard, but one that also takes into account social and economic sustainability. 

An event-specific standard creates an objective baseline against which events can be certified. Given the current global economic situation, an event standard that helps to streamline the processes, structure and resource efficiency of events couldn’t possibly come at a better time. Using this standard, organisations may be able to justify the strategic purpose and importance of their event against social, economic and environmental criteria specific to their organisation. It confers legitimacy as well as promoting resource efficiency.  In this economic climate, organisations that don’t look at these things may find themselves being out-competed as others streamline their events to become more efficient.

So how does corporate social responsibility (CSR) fit into the overall picture? Many big companies realise that sustainability matters, perhaps more than ever, in an economic downturn. The new term is “corporate responsibility and sustainability” or CR&S. Deloitte just published a white paper, “The Responsible and Sustainable Board”, in which it delineates 10 factors that will continue to drive CSR – or CR&S – in business. They include the five “fear factors” of declining resources, imminent carbon taxes, the war for talent, competition and watchful entities as well as five inspirational factors including an enhanced public image, reduction of risk, lowered cost of doing business, increased strategy, and simply making a difference in the world.

Our vision is to build a rich global meetings industry. Our mission is to make our members successful. By implementing sustainability, we are better positioned to be successful ourselves.

Elizabeth Henderson is director of corporate social responsibility for Meeting Professionals International

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