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ISO 20121 Revisions: Implications for Human Rights in Sport

Centre for Sport and Human Rights

The International Standards Organisation’s Sustainable Event Management Standard (ISO 20121) provides a framework for all stakeholders in the event industry and supply chain (venues, production companies, caterers etc.) to consider their social, economic and environmental impacts. It is relevant for all sizes of event, from small community gatherings to the Olympic Games, and for all types of event, including business, sport, cultural and political. The potential usage of this Standard is therefore vast. While it is applicable beyond sport, its creation is very much rooted in sporting events, with the London 2012 Olympic & Paralympic Games organisers spearheading the creation of British Standard (BS) 8901 on ‘Specification for a Sustainability Management System for Events’ in 2007, which eventually evolved into the international standard in 2012. Over the past decade, it has become the go-to sustainability standard for the event industry, being used in all major events over the past several years, including the Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 Olympic & Paralympic Games, the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup in Qatar, and the 2018 Gold Coast and 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games.

In the run up to the Paris 2024 Olympic & Paralympic Games this summer, it was decided that the Standard was in need of updating. This review process began in March 2023 with the Centre participating as a “liaison” - meaning an organisation that has relevant technical expertise or industry knowledge.

What are some of the benefits of ISO 20121?

ISO 20121 is a management standard and is applicable to all types and sizes of organisations involved in the design and delivery of events across diverse geographical, cultural and social conditions. It requires organisations to recognise their relationship with, and impact on, society, and society's expectations of events. The complexity of an events’ sustainability management system, and the extent of documentation and resources devoted to it, will be proportional to its defined scope, the size of the organisation and the nature of their activities, products and services. This is particularly useful for small and medium sized events, because while all organisations can seek certification against the Standard, that is by no means essential to using the guidance it contains.

So why did it need updating?

When ISO 20121 was first developed, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) had only just been adopted, and were not being implemented to the same extent as they are today. As a result, reference to human rights in the previous version was minimal, and alignment to internationally recognised standards, such as the UNGPs or the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, was absent.

Since then, the field of business and human rights has matured rapidly, and with it, the application of human rights standards to sport and sporting events. FIFA for example, was the first sport body to publish a human rights policy in 2017, and since then, several others have followed. The upcoming 2024 Olympic & Paralympic Games will also be the first multi-sport event to have human rights integrated directly into the Host City Contract. 

Given these steps by the sport sector to integrate human rights, and as the main sustainability certification standard for sporting events, it was clear ISO 20121 needed to better reflect this evolving landscape. Some of the key considerations that were discussed included the need:

  • For alignment with current global sustainability frameworks, goals & reporting standards such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals
  • For enhanced social impact considerations - including explicit reference to human and child rights, labour rights, local communities, and the international standards of best practice
  • To reflect a changing events sector, including hybrid & virtual events

What changes were made to ISO 20121 to better integrate social impacts?

In recognition of the fact that ISO 20121 needed to better align with global sustainability and human rights frameworks and reporting standards, the updated standard now includes explicit reference to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. This was critical not only because the UNGPs are the go-to standard for human rights by non-State actors, but also because human rights due diligence processes central to the UNGPs can often differ from sustainability management system approaches. By embedding internationally recognised human rights standards into the sustainability process, it now facilitates greater alignment between the two approaches.

There was also a need to include greater reference to social impacts - this is perhaps one of the most significant updates to the new ISO 20121 Standard. Reference to ‘social impacts’ has been added to several key definitions including sustainable development, legacy, stewardship and others that were previously missing. What is included in the definition of ‘social impacts’ has also been greatly expanded to include explicit reference to human and child rights, as well as other key issues including labour rights, civil liberties, indigenous rights, and Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI) amongst others. 

Of perhaps most significance however, is the addition of an Annex D on Human and Child Rights. Written and developed by UNICEF UK, in consultation with key stakeholders including CSHR, this Annex outlines: what are human rights, an organisations’ responsibility to respect human rights, what is involved in a human rights approach, who to engage, and how to conduct a human rights due diligence process. Put simply, this Annex is fully aligned with the UNGPs and the OECD Guidelines. Its addition offers guidance to event organisers on how to implement human and child rights, further enhancing the alignment between sustainability systems and international human rights standards.


ISO 20121 is, and will likely remain, the go-to management standard for event organisers looking to make sustainability commitments, and integrate them throughout the lifecycle of their event. The strengthened reference to human rights and social impacts is therefore a welcome addition, and CSHR looks forward to supporting event organisers in implementing the social requirements of the revised Standard. 

However, certain challenges remain. One of the principal issues is that it is the responsibility of event organisers to define for themselves what are the social, economic and environmental impacts they consider relevant. Whilst this may be needed to make the Standard relevant and implementable to events of all sizes, it could arguably have gone further and been more prescriptive. Impacts for larger events should be stakeholder informed and independently verified to ensure the most salient human rights impacts are being effectively managed.

In addition, whilst Annex D is a much needed and very welcome addition, event organisers are only certified on the requirements in the Standard itself, not on the elements set out in the Annexes. So, whilst Annexes are used by event organisers in practice (Annex B for example on supply chain management is widely used) some might suggest they only serve as optional guidance. Despite the UNGPs not being a compliance standard in their own right, taking some of their most critical elements, and embedding them into the Standard directly, not just into Annex D, would have arguably made the ISO 20121 Standard even stronger from a human rights perspective.

Nevertheless, this review has been a critical part of better aligning human rights and sustainability management approaches, and CSHR would like to take this opportunity to thank ISO and the various national mirror committees and liaison organisations with whom we have worked over recent months, and congratulate them for this milestone of an important new standard for the world of sport, and beyond.

For those seeking additional support on how to make a human rights commitment and embed human rights throughout your operations, including in your events, please contact [email protected]

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this commentary are those of the Centre for Sport and Human Rights, and do not necessarily express the views of ISO or the national mirror committees and other liaison organisations that were involved in the review process.

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