Words Matter: What “The Bedroom Tax” can teach us about selling sustainability
Take the recent furore over changes to UK housing benefits. The Government introduced what they called a “under-occupation charge” for those living in social housing with more than the minimum number of bedrooms they needed. The Opposition branded this “the bedroom tax” and the press adopted the term. The Prime Minister tried to fight back, talking about the status quo as a “spare room subsidy”, but it was too late, “the bedroom tax” had stuck.
Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of the policy, the case demonstrates how important language is. The original name was a dreadful piece of technocrat-speak, wide open to attack. The attack was effective as it used the much more emotive term “bedroom tax” which painted the policy as a ‘bad’ – tax – applied to a ‘good’ – a nice cosy bedroom. The response of a “spare room subsidy” was an attempt to apply the ‘bad’ (subsidy) to something much less cosy – a ‘spare room’, but it was too weak, too late.
This kind of verbal reframing is all part of the daily cut and thrust of politics, and, more often than not, whoever coins a resonant phrase first wins.
I was thinking of this at yesterday’s Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group meeting on sustainable supply chains. We were discussing Industrial Symbiosis – one company’s waste becoming another’s raw material – when one group member said that when talking to colleagues he preferred to call it “Waste to Value”.
Why? Do some green jujitsu and put yourself in your colleagues’ shoes.
You are busy doing your job when someone comes up to you to talk Industrial Symbiosis. Your reaction is likely to be “Huh? Can’t this wait?”
Or they could ask you about Waste to Value – “What, we can make money from our waste? Tell me more!”
To win sustainability arguments, we have to think more like politicians, kick out the technocrat-speak, and put a positive spin on our sustainability ideas and projects. As Frank Luntz, George W Bush’s infamous spin doctor put it, it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear. We need to use words that work.