Forty years ago this summer, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair was held on Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York. About half a million music lovers showed up for the event that was planned for only 200,000, but the event was an amazing success that has been celebrated in films, books, websites, and songs over the following decades. However, pictures of the field after the event show a muddy sea of trash that took five days to clean up, and the land was not fit for grazing for a long time after that. If anyone needs a picture of the potential environmental impact of a big entertainment event, any shot of Yasgur’s fields taken around August 20 will do. Of course, the Woodstock’s lighting and sound systems were small by today’s standards, and there are events such as the Beijing Olympics that make many modern music festivals look like children’s parties. The environmental impact of a big event today can be huge, dwarfing that of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair of 40 years ago. How can we stage these events in a sustainable way—a way that is profitable while not wrecking the environment, hurting people, or tearing apart communities?

There now is a British Standard that can help us stage sustainable events—BS 8901:2007, Specification for a sustainability management system for eventsand it may become an international one. The Associação Brasileira de Normas Técnicas (ABNT) and the British Standards Institution (BSI) have jointly filed a new work item proposal with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to create an international standard, with the British standard offered as a starting point. Whether this happens or not, the standard exists now, and there is nothing stopping any person, company, or organization that is concerned about event sustainability from using the existing BS 8901. It may carry no authority with local government officials outside the UK, but it still offers advice on how to create a management system for a sustainable event.

Sustainability in BS 8901 is broadly defined, with three aspects, only one of which is environmental. The other two are economic and social sustainability. An event is not sustainable if it doesn’t turn a profit. An event also is not sustainable if it alienates the community or harms people—e.g., the infamous Altamont Speedway Free Festival, four months after Woodstock. It’s a specification for a management system, not a checklist of exactly what one must do for a sustainable, green event. It uses management system principles that are common with ISO 9001, Quality management systems—Requirements, and ISO 14001, Environmental management systems—Requirements with guidance for use. You set the goals and the ways you are going to achieve them; the standard helps you figure out how to do what you’ve set out to do.

The basic process of implementing BS 8901 is: (chart here)

Note that the steps also include members of the supply chain. If an event is to be economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable, the vendors supplying the event must deliver their products or services in an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable manner. It’s good if you have an effective method of recycling used paper, but it’s much better if the paper you buy, use, and recycle comes from a supplier that uses recycled paper or paper from pulp harvested from carefully managed forests, rather than from a supplier that promotes rain forest clearances.

The need for vendor coordination is where making BS 8901 an international ISO standard might be very helpful. Supply chains are now global, and coordination will be easier if everyone is working to the same set of specifications for sustainable event management systems. While anyone who reads English can read and use BS 8901, an ISO standard is more likely to be accepted in all the far corners of the earth. As the ISO website puts it, “...International Standards provide a reference framework, or a common technological language, between suppliers and their customers. This facilitates trade and the transfer of technology.”

BS 8901 is not a long (29 pages) or complicated standard, but it leaves you with the hard work, which is developing the management system that meets the specifications in BS 8901. Some people may find that daunting, but there are sources of help. Since November 2008, PLASA has been conducting a series of workshops in the UK, and pitching them as the low-cost route to conformance with BS 8901, a way to improve efficiencies and gain competitive advantage, and a way to have access to a range of tested tools and templates for management system development. There are also private, commercial consulting firms that will offer guidance or work closely with you in developing a management system.

However people approach developing an events sustainability management system, they probably will have to do so, unless they are content to work at the margins of the event industry. Big producers, such as the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, are using BS 8901 (see http://www.london2012.com/documents/locog-publications/london-2012-sustainability-plan.pdf), and their management systems are easier to implement if their suppliers have comparable management systems for sustainability. Suppliers who do not may find themselves unable to bid on some projects because having a sustainability management system may be part of a minimum requirement written into the RFQ.

The events industry, in general, will be better off if good events sustainability management systems are widely adopted. If we can avoid repeating the management errors that led to the deaths at the 1969 Altamont Speedway Free Festival and the 1998 Our Domestic Resurrection Circus, and the 32,259 metric tons of waste generated at the 2002 World Summit of Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, we are more likely to avoid having governments ban events or adopt one-size-fits-none regulations, and avoiding that will help sustain the events industry.

The story originally appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of ESTA’s Protocol.

Karl Ruling is technical standards manager for ESTA.