Key Point 1: Context of the organisation

Key Message

Understanding the context of your organisation is really important when implementing sustainability.

What does context mean?

It's all about the history of your business, the values, the vision, the way you work with your staff and your customers.

Watch a video from Fiona Pelham, ISO 20121 Chair, who explains in more detail what the context of your organisation means.

Note: you can also read a transcript of her video below. 

The context of the organisation is the first part you are probably going to look at when you start implementing ISO 20121. 

There are five sections to this part of ISO 20121: firstly understanding the organisation and its context, secondly understanding the needs and expectations of interested parties, thirdly defining your scope, fourthly creating your management system, and finally creating a statement of purpose and values of your sustainable development principles.

So the first point, understanding your organisation and its context, what does that mean? Well it means what's happening outside your organisation and also inside it. So, what do your customers think, what are the behaviour patterns with customers, clients and supply chain. Where are your workforce? What training do they need? What's their feedback? Understanding what's happening inside and outside your organisation which may influence how you behave in the future is a very important first step.

Secondly is understanding the needs and expectations of interested parties. When you have an idea of what's happening outside and inside your organisation you then need to consult with anyone who may be interested in what you do. Within the ISO document there is a list of people that you should consult with, these include your supply chain and event organisers; but remember an interested party is anyone who could have a clearly defined or maybe an undefined interest in what you do. If you share your understanding of your organisation's context with these people you can probably get some very helpful feedback. You will also get a good understanding of what they believe your key issues to be.

So, the third step is determining your scope. Now that you have an understanding of your context and of what interested parties think that you should do, you need to set the scope for your management system. What does this mean? This means understanding the boundaries of what your way of working will cover. Will it cover everything you do in your company? Will it include all of your staff? Will it include every venue that you work at? Or are you going to create some boundaries and start with a smaller and more manageable scale and grow that over the years.

Fourthly is the actual management system itself, a management system is a way of working. It is a set of processes that will help you consider sustainability at every decision point you make.

Fifthly, the sustainable development principles statement of purpose and values. This is where you define your principles in a statement. Within ISO 20121 there are a number of governing principles for sustainable development which are included. These include transparency, inclusivity, integrity and stewardship. 

So, what does the principle of stewardship mean? It means looking after the land, the environment, the buildings, and the people that are within your control.

What does integrity mean? It means doing what you said that you would do, how you said you would do it and when you said you would do it.

What does inclusivity mean? It means having an understanding of who should be included and making sure you take the appropriate actions to include those people.

Finally, transparency is sharing the work that you are doing, your learnings and assumptions that you are making to take your steps forward.

This is the first step of ISO 20121.


Understanding of the organization and its context

You should understand why your organization exists (what is its purpose?) and then consider the environmental, social and economic issues which could affect this purpose. 

Understanding the needs and expectations of interested parties

Your organization's interested parties (also known as stakeholders) are people or other organizations who can affect, or be affected by, the running of your business. ISO 20121 asks you to have a procedure for engaging with these interested parties and find out their views or requirements in relation to how the business is run. 

Determining the scope of the management system

Scope means the boundaries of your management system. For example, you could be a football stadium and your management system could include all of the events which happen at the stadium except for certain events such as concerts, which could be operated by an external event organizer.

Event sustainability management system

A management system is simply a formalisation of existing and new processes, documentation and information. Your management system will capture how you work, backed up by evidence and signposting to your systems. ISO 20121 has a strong focus on continual improvement so you should be setting new, more ambitious targets each year. This also means you don't have to do everything at the start.

Sustainable development principles, statement of purpose and values

Your organization's principles are the reasons for its action and you are likely to already have a specific purpose in relation to the event industry. ISO 20121 asks you to say what your main values are in relation to sustainability, and include the values of stewardship, inclusivity, integrity and transparency. 


This presentation explains the areas relating to your organisation's context in more detail. 

Note: you can read a summary of this presentation below

Understanding the context of the organisation

By now, you will have an increased awareness of why understanding the context of your organisation is really important when implementing sustainability. You will have started to think about the purpose of your organisation, in other words, what do you exist to do?

As well as considering your business purpose and the current procedures that you follow in your business, consider the context in which you operate.

  • The location you operate from
  • Your current client base
  • Your business future plans for development
  • Whether you already have initiatives or standards in place

These considerations will help you decide what sustainability issues are the most important for you and we will look at that process in a future key point.

Remember that this is all about your way of working, so if you have multiple events but only one team that manages all events, it would make sense that all of those events would implement sustainability because it makes sense that one team would work in the same way for all events.

It is not just what the organisation does but what is happening in the outside environment. The concept to understand is to think about why the organisation exists? What is its purpose? And what are the possible things that could affect this purpose? Taking an example for a small business, perhaps the economic and environmental aspects in the external environment could mean the number of staff employed in the company is going to be limited.

So where as previously in a successful economic time there could have been one staff member given sustainability as their job role allowing them to become the sustainability champion for 90% of their time. Maybe in a current economic climate which is not so strong it makes sense to have a sustainability team, and the role of the sustainability champion would remain with one person who would be supported by their sustainability team. So each member of the team is able to implement small elements of sustainability leaving the sustainability champion free to take up other work as well.

There isn't a right or wrong way to do this; you may choose to have a single sustainability champion or a team. The point is that to help you make this decision, you should consider the context of your organisation and internal and external factors that could influence your choice.

Understanding the needs and expectations of interested parties

Why is it important to engage with interested parties? The key message is that it is not just your opinion that matters. The concepts to understand here are that the interested parties are your stakeholders and these stakeholders may have an influence on your business, for example, they may be economic investors.

They may also have a greater understanding of sustainability issues than you. It could be that you are too close to the challenge you are facing, or maybe it could seem too difficult to address some of the issues which you see as most important. It is important that you understand who your relevant interested parties and stakeholders are.

That does not mean it's everybody; relevant interested parties or stakeholders should have some connection with the business you are involved in. In terms of knowing their requirements, this may not always be written and documented. Their requirements may simply be their expectations based on who you are as a brand, how you run your business and the conversations you have with them.

An example is you could be positioning yourself as a market leader. You could win awards for innovation or produce regular strong financial economic reports. It could that be your interested parties or stakeholders would therefore expect you to begin reporting on your social and environmental impact as well.

Determining the scope of your management system

Determining the scope of your management system is really about deciding what areas of your business will operate according to ISO 20121. Once you decide this you are in a position to tell all of your stakeholders clearly what you are doing. This way you won't be accused of inventing, green washing or exaggerating how much you are using ISO 20121. You must remember it is not just what you want to do.

There are two things to consider when determining your scope, firstly external and internal issues. Where in the business might you need a management system or where might it seem appropriate for a management system to be in place. For example if you have a new part of the business opening and new staff coming on board it would make sense that they are all trained and work according to ISO 20121. Alternatively, if the economic environment is bad in one of the locations of one of your offices and it looks as if that office may be closing it may not make sense to focus your management system on being created in this environment.

Secondly, consider the expectations of your stakeholders, for example, while it may be easy for you to operate a management system just in your office, it may be that your stakeholders expect you to operate this management system across all of your businesses. Remember to document the scope of your management system. In other words write it down and make sure it is clearly communicated and written with all of your other sustainability information.

It could be that you operate hundreds of events over a year and you don't feel you could implement a management system quickly across all of those events. So you may choose a group of events, which may have a focus on sustainability or some other reason which would make these appropriate to be the first events that would implement ISO 20121.

Remember though if it is the same team that is delivering these events, they are only going to work in one way. So once the team is trained in ISO 20121, everything that they do will be according to that management system. As a final example, although you may have many offices around the world, you may choose to implement ISO 20121 in your main office locations for the first year and spread out in following years after that.

Event sustainability management system

Your management system is simply a formalisation of your ways of working. It doesn’t mean that you need to create hundreds of new documents; you can integrate the way that you manage sustainability into your existing processes – although you may wish to modify them to increase efficiency. ISO 20121, the international standard for event sustainability management, was created from a British standard, BS 8901, and was developed to provide a flexible framework that could not only be used for London 2012, but also be used by events of all shapes and sizes all over the world.  

Principles of sustainable development

Recognised principles of sustainable development are important in terms of framing why you are taking the decisions that you are. Some well known and well recognised principles of sustainable development include:

  • Stewardship, in other words taking care of what you do, the people that you work with and the environment that you work in.
  • Inclusivity, or not ignoring or leaving out and interested parties
  • Integrity, or doing what you said you would do, when you said you would do it in the way you said you would do it.
  • Transparency, allowing other to see and understand your decisions at work.

These are all recognised principles of sustainable development and it makes sense that your principles or reasons for your actions should have at least a slight reference to these. Remember to document this and document your business purpose or what you do and values that you have or how you do it. When doing this consider the products and services and activities you have related to events. Now that you have this, setting your objectives and targets will be easier. Why? You will understand more your reasons for taking these actions. Create a document that you are able to share with staff. This document will explain what type of business you are and give a context for all the decisions that you choose to make, for example the issues that you choose to face.


Video Resource

Fiona Pelham talks about context at the London 2012 Olympic Park.

Note: you can read a summary of the video below.

Understanding the context of your organization is really important in relation to sustainability. What does context mean?

It's all about the history of your business, the values, the vision, the way you work with your staff and your customers. For example, at the Olympic park there was a great example of context. When London won the bid they committed to sustainability and everything they did had a positive, inspiring impact on a generation. We could see that there was a waterway that had been used within the Olympic park that didn't really exist in the clean and environmental form that it does now. So the context of London 2012 values meant that they focused on creating a good positive environment that will be left for generations to come.

Case Study Resource

Foyer Nordstadsemi Race

The case study from a half marathon in Luxembourg shows how implementing sustainability can have a great impact.

A key context to consider in this example was that the future of the event was in danger due to poor weather conditions. This meant that vital interested parties (the runners) were not participating. By trialling specific sustainability initiatives, the organizers were able to raise the profile of the event as well as saving money and resources.

This case study is taken from the SSET wiki

ISO 20121 Summary

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has produced an overview to the ISO 20121 standard:

ISO 20121 overview


Activity 1

Ask the following questions about your organisation:

  • What is your purpose?
  • What do you exist to do?
  • Where is this documented?
  • Where is additional information or evidence on the organisation and its context located, e.g. stakeholder forums, annual reports etc.?

Activity 2

Decide what your scope will be for the management system. Remember, your scope is the boundaries of the management system (what is included and what is not included). 

Activity 3

Start thinking about who your most relevant interested parties could be. You may wish to do this with other members of your organisation so that you have a good overview from different areas. 

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