In search of a sustainability policy

By Andrew Furness, exhibitions strategy and sustainability consultant


Industry discussions about the need for a greater focus on sustainability are not new. With this in mind, I conducted a quick survey of the websites of 32 well known UK-based organisers to find out what they included in their corporate sustainability policies. Of those websites surveyed, just 56% made any obvious reference to a corporate sustainability policy relating to either the environment, diversity or social responsibility.

Not a great result, but perhaps equally concerning is that two thirds of those sustainability policy statements could be categorised as too basic or cursory in nature given the level of stakeholder scrutiny all organisations should quite rightly expect to face in the future.

There could, of course, be mitigating factors such as comprehensive policies being in place but not clearly posted on the website, which surely represents a missed opportunity as this is a company’s shop window to the world and often where a customer’s first impressions are forged. But if these results are reflective of the wider industry, at least among exhibition organisers, one is left with the distinct impression that we can and must do better, and quickly.      

So, why should every organisation, regardless of size, have a clearly stated sustainability development policy?

In simple terms this policy is an organisation’s statement of its commitment to sustainability objectives and provides the framework for setting out practices and standards required to achieve those.Once done, a policy just needs to be reviewed and updated on an annual or show cycle basis. To be effective, policies should avoid being too wordy and use plain language which inspires change.

A policy needs to be appropriate to that organisation and could be corporate or indeed event specific e.g. if the portfolio contains events which pose a particularly high level of environmental risk. Senior management needs to be on-board but securing employee buy-in is also essential and this can be encouraged by ensuring they play an active role in making recommendations and decisions on content. This will give everyone a share in the policy and help build strong relationships across the business and so smooth the process of implementation.

It is important to communicate this sustainability development policy to all stakeholders. Posting the policy on the corporate website, including it in staff handbooks, displayed in communal areas of the office and integrating into marketing campaigns, will all help to reinforce this commitment and promote appropriate changes in behaviour.

Targeted engagement may be required if that policy changes the terms on which the organisation will procure products and services in the future (e.g. they must be from sustainable sources). Communicating such changes as early as possible will give suppliers time to adapt their own sustainability development policies (if required) and therefore not limit the choice of vendors going forward.

What should a sustainability development policy include?

There is no set list of ‘must-haves’ but, as mentioned earlier, the policy needs to align with corporate objectives, or vice-versa. A simple approach could be to outline how the organisation plans to reduce its environmental impact, how it will ensure compliance and how it will continually improve its sustainability performance.

Three staple elements of many sustainability development policies are reducing waste, reducing water usage and improving energy efficiency, all of which should save an organisation money. These basic principles can be developed to include targets for recycling and reducing waste to landfill, purchasing only recycled and low environmental impact products, use of energy efficient lighting and equipment, reducing greenhouse gas emissions through changes to travel behaviour, and so on. While these examples are arguably a minimum requirement, certainly from an environmental perspective, a sustainability development policy should also address such issues as diversity and social responsibility, that is stating how greater diversity and inclusion will be achieved within the organisation and its policy to support local communities which may be impacted by its activities.

Inspiration as to what to include in an initial sustainability development policy can be sought from a number of external sources such as the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, UFI and ISO 20121:2012. But, remember, the policy needs to relate and be relevant to each specific business and should be reviewed and updated as the organisation grows and changes.

What are the benefits of having a clearly stated sustainability development policy?

Arguably the first tangible benefit will be cost savings arising from the reductions in waste and more efficient use of resources. Equating the introduction of a sustainability development policy with improving a company’s bottom line, is perhaps one of the most compelling calls to action for any senior management team.  

It is pleasing that there appears to be a growing recognition among the wider business community, that the commercial benefits of having such a policy in place, are far more numerous than simply avoiding fines or prosecution.

With increasing numbers of our customers implementing their own sustainability development policies, they will in turn demand a more sustainable approach from suppliers to help them achieve their objectives.  In future we can expect more private and public organisations to mandate they will only work with companies who demonstrate a sustainable approach. A comprehensive and clearly stated environmental development policy will therefore be one of the first criteria to be evaluated. Implementing such a policy could provide a valuable competitive advantage and open up the prospect of securing more business as a result, or at the very least maintaining the support of existing customers.

Demonstrating a commitment to sustainability through policy and actions will undoubtedly improve the reputation of a business. This enhanced reputation should enable the organisation to attract and retain high calibre employees particularly amongst the young. If this policy is also successful at creating a diverse workforce empowered to input into future strategy, it will create a more vibrant organisation able to respond effectively to sustainability and market trends. It is also generally accepted that if workforce morale is high, productivity also increases.

In this digital age and with the power of social media, word can spread instantly if your organisation does not live up to its sustainability development policy. Simply having an all singing all dancing policy is not enough, your actions must back up that commitment.  

Let’s make it policy to all have an active sustainable development policy. 


Andrew Furness, exhibitions strategy and sustainability consultant can be contacted at: