by: Celina Harris
“Leave it better than you found it”
That was the phrase my parents constantly repeated during my adolescence.
Staying at a friend’s house? Leave it better than you found it. Going on a hike? Leave it better than you found it. Visiting the beach? Leave it better than you found it. House sitting for family friends? Well, you get the gist. The theme was always the same. Don’t make a mess. Clean up after yourself, and then go a bit beyond that. Be courteous of shared spaces and always strive to leave them better than they were when you first got there.
As I got older, this philosophy started to stretch more into my day-to-day life. Sharing an apartment with a roommate? Leave it better than you found it. Working in a lab space with my peers? Leave it better than you found it. Existing on our planet?
Truthfully, that last one is the biggest and a bit more abstract than the others. But it is also one that I think about a lot and struggle with the most. I love the idea of leaving the Earth in a better shape for future generations. I know I’m not alone in that; the idea of leaving behind a legacy for the future to enjoy is a big motivator for a lot of people in cultivating parks and green spaces and you can tell when you see dedicated benches or bricks to people who helped found those spaces. But it’s not just green spaces that I want to leave better than I found it. What if I want to leave the whole planet better than I found it?
That question, and the motivation it implies, is the concept behind a carbon footprint. If you’re unfamiliar, a carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide or methane, which our individual actions generate. Ideally, we’d want this footprint to be as small as possible. This would indicate that we’re leaving a minimal impact on the environment around us. In a way, you can think of it as the metric for how well you’re leaving the planet. Can you leave it better than you found it though? Not really, because on an individual level, all of our activities have some form of emission.
Let me explain with an example like: “Where will I shop for clothes?”. I prefer not to buy new clothes – I grew up in hand-me-downs from older cousins and siblings so secondhand clothing is always my go-to. It’s cheaper, which is nice for a student budget, and it tends to already have that “worn-in” comfort. Plus, I don’t mind pulling out my sewing kit from time to time to fix up a seam or patch a worn knee. While I’m not generating any emission from buying new clothes, there was still some emission from the initial production and it’s now spread over multiple people’s footprints in smaller amounts. Additionally, depending on what kind of fabric I’m wearing, there will be some emissions as it gets worn down and releases fibers, synthetic plastic based or otherwise, into the environment.
Now say I do need to shop, when I do, I try to find affordable companies that are transparent about their material sourcing and manufacturing processes: are the fabric sources sustainable or recycled? Are employees paid fair wages to produce the garments? Are the supply chains carbon conscious? Finding answers to those questions from most retailers is not easy. Add in the need to find them from affordable retailers, because I am on a graduate student budget, and it can become next to impossible. How do I know what my carbon footprint looks like when if I need to buy a new pair of jeans for work? And while this may seem like a trivial question, fashion as an industry makes up 10% of global carbon emissions and 20% of wastewater, which means it’s up there with flying in terms of things that make a large negative environmental impact. Suddenly my desire to buy those jeans becomes contrary to my desire to minimize my environmental impact.
As a consumer, it can feel like a Sisyphean task to try and care about your carbon footprint. Knowing that you can’t break even is one thing, but it’s also hard to just find the necessary information to know if you’re even being minimal. It becomes overwhelming. As students, how are we supposed to have time for our degrees if we also need to make time to research the companies where we want to shop? And this example is just for clothing. Add in other retailers like restaurants, grocery stores, bookstore, pet food stores, cosmetics, prescriptions and I’m sure you can understand how it can spiral. Suddenly, it goes from wanting to help the Earth to struggling with misplaced consumer guilt. This, coupled with the fact that most of the global emissions are coming from corporations and not individuals has lead to a decent bit of push back against the idea of a carbon footprint all together.
So what do we do? In short, the simplest answer is try our best. I may not be able to always source my jeans from the best retailer with my budget constrictions or time restraints, but I can make small efforts like minimizing meat consumption and using public transportation. These things are nontrivial for having a positive overall impact on the environment. At the end of the day, we as individuals can’t realistically achieve a net-zero carbon footprint, but we can do our best. Backing our attitudes to do our best when shopping is necessary to help companies cut their emissions too. Leaving the world better than we found it, can never be a one person task even though our individual efforts do make an impact. It’s ultimately more of an “everybody do your share” approach.
Luckily, a lot of countries want to do their share. A lot of countries are pledging to go net-zero on their carbon emissions by 2050. Coupling our desires to lower emissions at home with consumer action and pushes to policymakers at the local, national, and international levels are really what’s needed to see a massive improvement in climate change predictions over the next couple years. While 2050 may seem like a very near deadline, it may be too late by more recent predictions of overall climate warming.
Leaving things better than we found them can’t wait until the ends of our lifetimes. The Earth isn’t a party that we have to clean up before we leave. It’s everyday effort to minimize our impact and regular efforts to push companies and policymakers to make the larger strides that we as individuals can’t make. At the end of the day, it’s not an either/or choice, but a both. Leave it better than you found it isn’t a one person job, it’s a community effort and we’re all part of that community.