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.
14/11/2022 04:47:27 pm
Reading the response that Celina Harris wrote on her phrase, “Leave it better than you found it '' and the connections between her own life and the world really intrigued me. It is eye opening that this phrase that could be connected to the meaning for cleaning up one’s mess in a house to the sidewalk can be the same. Although, not cleaning up and littering one piece of trash can cause the earth harm. I was shocked that ten perecent of the world’s carbon emissions and twenty percent of the water comes from the fashion industry. Instead of buying new, maybe thrifting and reselling so that the cycle is continuous and your old may be someone’s new.
15/11/2022 11:25:09 am
Growing up my parents would also repeat that same phrase "leave it better than you found it" whenever we would go camping, visit relatives, etc. In order for the world to dampen the effects of a warming climate we all must adopt that as our motto. If everyone were to take that phrase to heart to some degree there would be significant improvements in the rate the climate is changing. Even small steps. such as going around your neighborhood and picking up trash can make a difference and inspire more people to continue your work. Also reducing one's consumption of meat can be a good way to lessen your carbon footprint, as the farming industry is a major source of water usage and greenhouse gasses.
15/11/2022 03:38:30 pm
I have always went by the phrase "leave it better than you found it". I would baby sit and the first thing I would do when the kids went to bed is clean the house even if it was not clean when I got there. Personally, I have never thought of this phrase in terms of Earth. I completely agree that many people would like to leave Earth better than they found it. I think it is important to mention like you did that we cannot wait to the end of our lifetime this is an everyday effort. Everyday we need to push for people in position or leadership to make big moves to better the Earth so we can leave it better than we found it.
15/11/2022 04:08:17 pm
This has an incredibly powerful message. When it comes to the climate crisis, I think that many feel both hopeless and helpless in attempts to make any kind of change. The message that an individual person can still do their part in just little parts of their lives, like buying clothes second hand, really does make a difference. The quote "leave it better than you found it" is an excellent way to sum up the idea of this individual impact and effort.
16/11/2022 09:01:29 am
As Harris explained the fast fashion industry, it reminded me of an essay I wrote in high school about the unethical practices of the industry. That paper made me realize the impact corporations have on the environment and how much they control our lives. What we as consumers do not know can hurt us and unfortunately, because we depend on these corporations, it is easy for them to make decisions to maximize their profit unethically, resulting in poor quality (which encourages throw away culture), incredibly low wages for employees, and the dismissal of environmental concerns. However, as society makes advances in environmental protection, there are many questions that need answered. For example, how much environmental regulation is too much for corporations? Can too many restrictions cripple commerce? Additionally, ethical production means higher prices, so what would the impact be on third world countries and should eradicating poverty play a role in environmental protection?
16/11/2022 10:28:47 pm
The idea of "Leave it better than you found it." is a very powerful message and most people are in agreement that this is the way we should be thinking when it comes to the climate crisis and how the Earth is taken care of. If each person does the most they can then each little bit will go a long way. This means there will be a better chance to meet the concept of "Leave it better than you found it." and a better chance to help our planet a little bit more everyday. Harris explains this very nicely and gives perfect examples of how we see this idea in everyday life.
21/11/2022 07:53:32 am
I appreciate your understanding, as a student, of the constraints that many students face in terms of sustainability and climate change. I have done a bit of research into "fast fashion" myself and it is just bad overall for everyone. Not only are the workers typically vastly underpaid and poorly treated, but the amount of emissions from shipping these product halfway around the world is appalling. I feel like this is definitely one place that we as students can make a difference, by thrifting, upcycling, and just really wearing our clothes until they cannot be worn any longer.
12/12/2022 01:21:01 pm
As a girl scout for several years, the quote "leave it better than you found it" definitely hit home. This was always said when we were camping and outdoors. I agree that to keep this earth in good condition we all need to do our part. Any small contribution makes an impact, not only on that hike where animals strive and thrive, but also in the city where a lot of people congregate.
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