What makes for a sustainable event?

Lessons from the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games

David Stubbs, Independent Sustainability Expert

The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games were an enormous success on numerous fronts and that is testimony to the hard work and excellence of so many people involved in the project.

Nearly three years on and I am still hugely proud that we honoured our ambitious sustainability commitments and succeeded in raising the bar and setting new standards in so many areas. This wasn’t something extra; it was an integral part of what we did and helped us deliver such great Games.

To understand what made the Games so noteworthy in terms of sustainability, this article takes an adapted extract from the final London 2012 Sustainability Report, published in December 2012.

Early on in our planning for the Games, we set out a definition of what we meant by a sustainable event. This identified eight key attributes, which I think are a good way of looking at how we performed.

  1. Provide an accessible and inclusive setting for all

The detailed planning in the early years to ensure we designed our venues and services to be as accessible as possible really bore fruit during the
Games, complemented by the highly successful Games Mobility service.Our food services provided sufficient options to cater for diverse dietary, ethnic, cultural and practical needs; we provided affordable options, access to free drinking water and we allowed people to bring their own food into venues.Above all, the warm welcome provided by our volunteer Games Makers from all walks of life helped to make everyone feel part of the Games.

  1. velodromeProvide a safe and secure atmosphere

Thankfully there were no major safety or security incidents during the Games.The screening of visitors into venues was efficient, friendly and even fun.This was due in large part to the marvellous professionalism of the armed forces and police and their positive engagement with the public.Behind the scenes, the work of the security and emergency services all contributed to the overwhelmingly relaxed and secure atmosphere at the Games.

  1. Have minimal negative impacts on the environment

The Games inevitably consume a large amount of resources, but through our planning, procurement and operational choices we have massively
avoided waste, we have made substantial carbon savings, sourced environmentally friendly products and taken care to protect the natural and cultural heritage found on our venues.From the natural planting of the Olympic Park to the detailed surveys and ecological management at Greenwich Park and Box Hill, and the partnerships we initiated, we made important contributions to biodiversity conservation.

  1. Encourage healthy living

The inspirational power of sport clearly shone through during the Games. Since then, clubs up and down the country have reported a surge in participation in so many different sports.For the Games we instigated the Active Travel Programme, which not only enabled spectators and workforce to cycle or walk to venues, but it formed a huge part of managing the background travel demand across London. We addressed air quality concerns by ensuring we had a low-emission vehicle fleet, maximising use of public transport modes and fitting particulate filters to several of our temporary power generators.Finally, let’s not forget the health and well being benefits of creating a large new parkland in east London, providing vital open space for recreation and enjoyment of the natural environment.

  1. Promote responsible sourcing

Staging the Games required a vast amount of goods and services, more than £1billion-worth in value, all of which had to be sourced sustainably.We put huge effort into our procurement programme, in which sustainability was an integral part of our definition of value for money.This gave us a diverse supplier base, of which 70 per cent of companies were small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and represented all nations and regions of the UK.In 2011, we were certified to the globally recognised standard of the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply for our effective processes, strategies, policies and procedures.

We always knew there would be challenges, particularly in the area of labour standards, which is why our ground-breaking Sustainable Sourcing Code introduced the innovative concept of a Complaints and Dispute Resolution Mechanism, something that other companies, such as adidas,have since started to emulate.

  1. Deliver excellent customer experience

When people feel valued they appreciate what you have done.All our client groups, from athletes to spectators, gave us excellent feedback on their Games experience.Their appreciation of the quality of service, of the venues and landscaping, of the transport and security services and the friendliness of the volunteer Games Makers made for an especially memorable occasion. Attention to detail had been a vital factor in achieving this, and sustainability was a key component.

Stadium-at-night

  1. Encourage more sustainable behaviour

One thing that came through loud and clear from the Games was that people respected the quality of the venues.So many remarked on how clean and litter-free they were, and how easy it was for them to recycle their rubbish.Respect for place was also important, whether at the newly created Olympic Park, on the sensitive chalk grasslands of Box Hill (part of the Road Cycling route), or on the grassy cliffs overlooking Weymouth Bay (our Sailing venue). Through many of the Inspire projects, our Get Set education programme and the local initiative Changing Places, we engaged thousands of people in sustainability projects and activities which we hope will continue for a long time to come.

  1. Leave a positive legacy

Although ultimately legacy is a long-term perspective, we can already see numerous examples where our work is being carried forward: among our partners, BT and Coca-Cola have adopted and adapted our carbon footprint methodology to look at their business areas; the Food Legacy Pledge (managed by Sustain) is attracting widespread support; the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) is taking forward many of the learnings from our zero waste Games vision; and we were instrumental in the development of the new international management system standard for sustainable events, ISO 20121, which is now firmly established across the global event industry.

We certainly didn’t always get it right, and along the way we learnt from our mistakes.But by being there from the beginning, asking searching questions and seeking better ways of doing things, we gave ourselves the opportunity to choose.

London 2012 was the result of all these choices. Every one that we and our suppliers and partners made had an impact on the success of the Games as well as on the environment, the community and our legacy.

Sustainability does not have an end point and I hope that what we learnt and reported will continue to provide future events and major projects with a solid foundation for improving their sustainability performance.

About the author:

DS 2 - 15 04 14David Stubbs is an internationally recognised leader in sustainability, environmental management and conservation biology.
Much of his career has centred on sustainability management of sport and major events. For nine years he led the award-winning sustainability programme of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, widely recognised as the most sustainable Games in modern Olympic history.
He now works as an independent sustainability expert advising organisations and major projects throughout the world. He served on the IOC’s Evaluation Commission for the 2020 Summer Games and is currently a member of the Evaluation Commission for the 2022 Winter Games.

Before London 2012, he spent 15 years working on environmental aspects of golf course development and management. His original training and research was in conservation biology and he is a founder member and Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, as well as the 2013 recipient of the CIEEM Medal, the institute’s highest award. David is currently a Visiting Professor of Sustainability at the University of East London.

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