What do Burning Heads, Asian Dub Foundation and Radiohead have in common? They have all visited the Balélec Music Festival in Lausanne, Switzerland. The concept for the festival was born in 1981 when professors from the Electricity Department of the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Europe’s most cosmopolitan technical university, decided their students needed some downtime at their place of study.

The event soon transcended departmental boundaries to be enjoyed by the whole campus and has since gone from strength to strength, reaching a record 15 000 visitors. For one night a year, the prestigious institution gets a complete makeover with numerous stages and clubs hosting more than 30 concerts.

The event itself offers a well-rounded experience with endless food stalls and bars, sanitation and waste facilities, and a comprehensive transport service – not to mention top-notch security. Managing the environmental burden of the evening has therefore become essential. To make the event greener, Balélec chose to get certified to ISO 20121 for event sustainability management, which helps event organizers identify – and mitigate – the damaging social, economic and environmental impacts of their event.

Photo: Balélec

Embracing the principles of the standard, the festival set about rationalizing its waste management and limiting noise pollution, while promoting dialogue with its partners and campus-wide coordination.

The result is quite a turnaround: reusable cups and dishes, pocket ashtrays, refundable public transport… Certified in time for its 2014 edition, the Balélec Music Festival shows us there are greener ways to have fun as explained by Miriel Steudler, Quality Manager for the event.

Why did the Balélec Festival organizing committee decide to use ISO 20121?

In 2007 Balélec became the first Swiss music festival to implement ISO 14001 to better manage its environmental impact. The pioneering spirit pervading the organizing committee and our quest for continual improvement prompted us to look at ISO 20121 for the events industry, which provided the ideal opportunity to include social and economic aspects into our existing management system.

Socio-economic concerns had been given extra attention these past few years to ensure the survival of the event into the future. The fact is, from one edition to the next, the festival must adapt to the site of the venue – the campus of the EPFL (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne) – which is undergoing constant transformation, as well as to local residents and the wishes of its partners, concerned about their sponsorship policy. What’s more, the certification awarded in recognition of these efforts serves to highlight the professionalism of the committee, largely composed of volunteer students.

The 2015 edition of Balélec is the second year that ISO 20121 will be used in the festival. What lessons have you learned from the first year ? And what are you hoping to do differently?

We have noticed that by improving our internal communication and the coordination between the different units, we are able to avoid a number of misunderstandings and glitches that might reflect negatively on our image, including costly consequences on our reputation and reduced efficiency. We aim to continue in that vein.

Besides, our annual debriefing session and the compilation of external complaints brought up a number of issues in need of attention. We hope to put formal procedures in place and monitor their progress to prevent similar errors from recurring this year. We are pursuing our efforts for better waste management, extended sanitary facilities and improved coordination with the university authorities, while keeping our partners informed of our sustainability approach.

With more than 120 partners participating in Balélec, what did you find to be the biggest challenge?

What makes Balélec Music Festival so special is the uniqueness of its venue – the EPFL campus, which has hosted the event for the last 34 years. For one memorable evening, revellers and students are free to roam the corridors, classrooms and entire grounds of the university, experiencing this academic institution in a completely new light.

The sheer magnitude of the event, with its well-oiled yet complex organization, implies ongoing dialogue and coordination between the committee and our 120 partners, while meeting the constraints imposed by the university. Our constraints, as it happens, are often twofold as we try to balance the needs and expectations of the university with those of our partners. Moreover, the event’s growing popularity brings additional constraints, which must be weighed against the restrictions dictated by a continually evolving campus, forcing us to adapt each year.

Could you please share with our readers some logistical information (i.e. number of staff, budget allocated, time spent preparing for ISO 20121)?

The Balélec Festival takes place over one evening. Recent editions have attracted 15 000 participants for a budget of around 650 000 Swiss francs, making it one of the largest festivals in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. The organizing committee is composed of 50 members, including some 15 new members each year. We also get a further 350 volunteers joining us for the duration of the event.

We made the decision to implement ISO 20121 in September 2013 and were officially certified on 4 April 2014. Three committee members, myself included, were involved in the project. Two of us had already worked with ISO 14001, which enabled us to build on the existing system and expand it more easily. The budget allotted to the system is our certification budget; broadly speaking, we allocate over 10 % of our budget to sustainable development activities, including transport, sanitary facilities, reusable cups and plates and waste disposal.

What were the main results and impacts?

The organizing committee changes every year. The standard forces us to endorse certain procedures, which facilitate the change and help everyone quickly find the right information and meet objectives. The standard’s PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) structure also means there is a common thread linking one edition with the next and helps us improve as we go along.

The main environmental impacts we tackle are waste, sanitation and noise. In terms of our social impacts, we work to keep the communication and collaboration flowing between the EPFL and its neighbours. As for the economic aspects, we focus on keeping our sponsors happy and ensuring our partners get a reasonable return on investment.

Do you have any tips or advice for ISO 20121 users?

Mobilizing the whole team and building momentum around the process is essential if you hope to reap the full benefits of an ISO 20121 management system. The committee’s involvement and motivation are key when it comes to successfully implementing the standard and achieving all of its objectives.

Sustainable development is a hot topic right now, but the standard’s strength resides above all in adapting to the needs, size and vision of each individual event. We are proud of our achievement and remain confident that we can make the most of ISO 20121 in the future. We encourage all events industry professionals to follow our lead.

Hip hip hooray! Sitting on the “Big Stage”, the Balélec organizing committee give three cheers for a job well done.

Photo: Quentin Ligier