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Discourse Framing

By Maeve Masterson - May 11, 2018


“This is private information only foodservices would understand.” It struck me like a slap in the face.

Maybe it was the T-shirt I was wearing, with the words “Act Like You Live Here” written in big letters across a globe, or maybe it was the accusatory tone in my voice when I asked her what she did with the leftover gelato at the end of the day.

I stumbled across people like her a lot as I eagerly hopped from diners to patisseries, hoping to find some restaurant that would confess where their leftover food waste was going. My investigation was rooted in an attempt to make a documentary on the sustainable strategies local restaurants use to divert their leftovers from landfills. But I wasn’t so successful.

Why was it that employees circled around my questions?

And why was it that when I asked, “Is it ok if I record you?” faces heated and voices grew quiet?

Moreover, how did I become so powerful? It was clear that I faced an industry that habitually, if not dangerously, ignores sustainable practices when they threaten the profit of their business. So, perhaps to prove myself a successful investigator, I aimed to dig deeper behind the B-Corps and LEED certifications proudly posted on restaurant walls. But in order to continue interrogations, I would need to tame my vocal curiosity.

I strove to relate . To prove to companies that I wasn’t there to judge them for their wasteful practices. So I used all that I knew of the language of business. At a nearby diner, I replaced my words for “food waste” with “food that would never be sold”. To my surprise, in the midst of a lengthy description of cost-efficient initiatives, the manager shamelessly admitted that he threw away fourteen garbage bags of rice each day. Bingo! It felt as if I’d coerced a criminal into confessing their crime. For him, food waste resulted in money down the drain instead of skyrocketing methane emissions, but both reasons strived for less food waste nonetheless.

I had just learned firsthand the art of discourse framing. It was clear that the whole B-Corp prestige was a sham, and although they wore the image well, their prioritization of “profit over planet” was crystal clear. There’s a slim chance that managing food waste makes the top of the To Do list. And, although it contradicted all that I fought for, that began to make sense .

Environmental advocacy is not about convincing others climate change is real. Hoping that someday all businesses will share my values is simply impractical. It’s about discourse framing. In other words, connecting the planet's needs to each of our values so that we can all be part of the solution whether we realize it or not. It’s about accepting that people will inevitably live their lives in the most convenient, desirable way possible. And to most, making sacrifices, like taking public transportation, paying taxes for carbon, or even giving up juicy, tender chicken wings, is not worth the environmental devastation we simply cannot see from our backyard. 

So how do you attract your peers? Make it fashionable to be sustainable. Cue Emma Watson carrying a chic reusable grocery bag. 

What about your conservative Congressman? Emphasize the resulting boost in economy and job growth that spurs from the rise of the renewable energy industry.

And your Grandmother? Emotional appeals. Tell the story of the boy who wears a face mask to protect himself from methane-rich air. She may not know the physics behind rising CO2 in the atmosphere or how it leads to the greenhouse effect but she sure won't forget the boy whose identity is masked because of it. 

We all can relate. And as the doomsday clock moves closer to midnight and we continue to hold strong to our differing values, we must accept, listen, and accommodate. 

We are all part of the solution, whether we like it or not. 

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