TerraPass customer survey results: indulgence myth pretty much dead

Written by adam


We completed a large-scale survey of our customer base recently to gauge the attitudes and behaviors of carbon offset purchasers across a fairly wide spectrum of topics. Below are some of the results, and here’s a handy one-pager on some of the key findings.

I pass this along mostly without interpretation, but one thing to note: the notion that TerraPass customers use offsets as an excuse to indulge in other forms of bad behavior is now pretty well laid to rest. The indulgence myth is long-standing, but it’s always floated along in this sort of evidence-free zone, most often as a strawman foil for some easy editorializing.

And now we know why evidence for the indulgence myth is never offered: it doesn’t seem to exist. Unsurprisingly, people who voluntarily spend money to fund greenhouse gas reductions are quite motivated to reduce their impact in other ways as well.

  • 26% of TerraPass customers take public transportation to work. This is more than 5 times the national average.
  • An astonishing 24% of TP customers bike to work, 22 times the national average.
  • 64% of customers have installed compact fluorescent light bulbs. Fully 25% of these people opted to install the bulbs after purchasing their TerraPass, so maybe the conservation tips are working.
  • 16% drive hybrids, about 7 times the national average. Again, 25% of these people switched to a hybrid after purchasing their TerraPass.
  • Here’s an interesting one: 50% of TerraPass customers have contacted an elected representative about climate change. I’m glad to hear this, because exerting political influence is the most important thing we can do to fight climate change.
  • TerraPass customers are also active contributors to other environmental causes. Fully 69% of you support green charities.
  • An astonishing 6% of you have solar panels on your home. This is 200 times the national average.

We may add some more nuggets as we uncover them. But all in all, you folks are a very green group. You should be proud.

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  1. J. Joiner

    I have never seen a TerraPass sticker on an SUV. In fact, I have only seen them on hybrids (and yes, I have one and so does my Stepmom who I bought a sticker for). I never did understand the complaints. Thanks for clearing this up, but I’m sorry I didn’t participate in the survey.

  2. Dennis

    I have twice seen a TerraPass on an SUV. Once was a midsize SUV (can’t remember the make/model), the other was a hybrid Ford Escape. Oh and I also saw one on a Ford F350.
    I also missed the survey (must have blinked). Would have (marginally) boosted some of the numbers above…

  3. Deanna L Nichols

    Missed the survey too–but I’m glad to read it. I know I fit the profile you describe here, so why wouldn’t it be true of other offsetters. I think that rather than it beign true that people offset to excuse indulgence, we offset because we can’t reduce our use as much as we would like to, so we do the next best thing.

  4. Craig

    I live in the Detroit area, and have the only terrapass that I have seen (I drive a 2003 Vibe). I also just went on a 2wk vacation in the New England states, up to Maine, and did not see one terrapass. This (lifestyle change and offset) needs to keep growing and becoming successful. BTW, I am glad terrapass posted this survey…because I think it is downright silly that any one would think terrapassers offset as a means to indulge. Keep up the good work terrapass.

  5. Misanthropic Scott

    I fit the profile as well, in most things. I have not yet purchased a hybrid. Remember, throwing away a car has environmental impact too. A new car must be built, which requires huge resources. Even assuming that I sell the car and someone continues to use it, somewhere a car gets scrapped.
    So, I’m running my ’92 4 cyl camry into the ground before replacing it. 104,000 miles so far. It still shakes, rattles, and rolls. I doubt it’ll make it much longer. I’m also getting concerned that it’s not up to today’s safety standards. I’m guessing there’s a prius in my future.
    I can only hope for a diesel electric one with solar panels and an HECE device. I’m betting the combination would easily get 100 MPG. Unfortunately, a plug wouldn’t help me parking in a Manhattan garage.

  6. Adam Stein

    Thanks for the kind comments, folks. By the way, we definitely have sold TerraPasses to SUV-owners and to Detroiters and to all sorts of people from all across the country. We’ve sold TerraPasses in all 50 states!
    Our intent is definitely not to criticize the TerraPass owners who don’t fit the pattern described above. But it is pretty clear from the data that, on the whole, TerraPass owners are very green bunch.

  7. Chad

    I agree with Scott. Throwing away a functional car (or in my case, my ’96 S-10) is not environmentally friendly, even if you are going to upgrade to something more efficient. My poor old truck still has a couple of years left in her before maintaince becomes more hassle than it is worth.
    I wish I could bike and/or use public transportation to get to work, as I have most of my life. Unfortunately, my work location makes this virtually impossible. Why is so much of America set up in a ridiculous configuration that literally forces people to drive, even just to get across the street?
    And what’s up with the 36% of Terrapass users who don’t have compact fluorescents?

  8. Juanito from Arizona

    I don’t post my sticker, because of a simple aversion to cluttering up the windows of my car.

    I’m disappointed that I, too, missed the survey. I never bought that myth, and my overall conservation would have included my successful plan to cut my driving 25%. It was easy: I make lists for shopping excursions which here, in rural Arizona means long trips. I also re-use plastic dinnerware many times, and gained amused notoriety from the host at a recent party when I asked him to request guests to rinse off their top-of-the-line and very expensive plastic dinnerwear so I could take it to a poor section of a Mexican city nearby where I volunteer in food distribution. They often become the main dinnerware for the families there.

    It grieves me no end that most folks do not know that virtually all plastics are made from petroleum. Somehow, “the use-it-once-and- toss-it” mentality must stop!

  9. Erica

    Hey Craig,
    A New Englander here to re-assure you that terrapassers are around up here…but most of us don’t use the stickers. We *do* talk up TP at every opportunity though and most fit the survey results more or less.
    I also missed the survey…when was it posted or mailed??
    Anyway, glad to be counted in to such an inspiring group…keep rockin the greenness! 🙂

  10. Anonymous

    I find the SUV comments puzzling. Let’s look at the big picture…Any way to get a full-size SUV either off the road or offset is a step in the right direction! My spouse has a company car, which is an SUV. Due to the nature of his work, he must drive the car. We continue to try to change the company car policies, but for now, we have no option to rid ourselves of this SUV. So we purchased a Terra Pass to offset it’s effect. Our personal car is a hybrid…it replaced a full-sized SUV! You do the best you can with your personal circumstances and keep trying to turn things around. Let’s not lose sight of the goal.

  11. ewolfk

    I’ve purchased a TerraPass for my cute-ute and my husband’s not-so-cute-ute. He has never gotten around to putting on his pass, and my actual pass is barely visible through my tinted windows.

    We have property (off the grid) for which an SUV is a very, very helpful vehicle. We have made it in via a Toyota Corolla, but the wear and tear on the vehicle would have meant early replacement, which isn’t environmentally sound either.

  12. Valerie

    Well… um… I have a Terra Pass on my *gulp* Suburban… it helps a tiny bit to reduce my feelings of guilt for owning the “beast”. We do really “need” the beast quite often (hauling lots of stuff and people… and doing lots of car pooling) but it was still a difficult choice for me to buy such a vehicle… TerraPass helps me feel a little better about it as does biking to work several days of the week, using all CFLs, etc etc… (Oh, and it’s diesel Suburban for which we hope to start making bio-diesel fuel one of these days).

  13. Anonymous

    I too have a SUV because I haul a lot of folks around. The SUV is from a few years ago when hybrids were not around; cant discard what is otherwise a perfectly good vehicle. I did not get Terrapass to reduce guilt – just to offset emissions because I cant reduce the emissions myself directly. I do have the sticker on our SUV just to make other folks aware that even if their circumstances dont allow them to change their cars, they can do something to offset their emissions. We as a household also do other things to reduce emissions like take public transport to work practically every day, turn lights off when we leave a room, use CFLs, minimize water use in our home, and the list goes on and on. By the way, we dont seem to fit the profile of the typical Terrapasser!

  14. Aaron A.

    Anonymous said:
    We as a household also do other things to reduce emissions like take public transport to work practically every day, turn lights off when we leave a room, use CFLs, minimize water use in our home, and the list goes on and on. By the way, we dont seem to fit the profile of the typical Terrapasser!

    Seems to me like you do. Sure, there’s the age and income stuff, but that’s just an interesting side note. More importantly, TerraPass is just one part of how you manage your ecological impact.

    Separate note:
    I’ve always been a little hesitant about getting a TerraPass for my wife’s Grand Cherokee. It emits about half of what my car does, because it spends a lot of time parked; she only puts about 4,000 miles on it each year. Still, I’d hate for some jerk to bark at her about indulgences and hypocrisy and blah blah blah, just because I suggested we should offset our vehicles.

    — A.

  15. Tracy

    Those holding off on the purchase of a more fuel efficient car in favor of driving that clunker might want to do some more research. “On the road in 2020” by the MIT Energy Research Lab discusses this in some detail. Table 5.4 actually lays out the total carbon emitted during the entire life cycle of an auto and the manufacturing and disposal cycles is only approximately 15% of the total carbon cost assuming a 95% metal and 50% glass recycling rate. Fuel production and operation of the car is far more significant. Thus if you assume an approximate 15% mpg penalty on your desired car and still wind up with equivalent mpg compared to your current car, you should consider the purchase as having a roughly neutral impact. If after the penalty, your target car still has superior mpg then you should consider purchasing.

  16. Adam Stein

    I don’t actually know how the math breaks down for buying a new car vs. holding onto an old one, but another factor to consider — when you sell your used car, it doesn’t generally just disappear. If it’s in reasonable shape, someone else will presumably buy it.
    At this point, the downstream effects become rather difficult to gauge. But the discussion of trading up always seems to ignore the fact that you aren’t actually “throwing away” the old car, and all of its embodied energy.
    I suspect this strengthens the argument for trading up, but again, I’m really not sure how the numbers work out.

  17. Jean

    I am a recovering SUV driver, and had a Terrapass. I now have a Hybrid, and I can’t tell you how good it feels. One of the things we are doing is not buying any plastic, especially bottled water. The impact of the amount of oil used to make plastic water bottles is horrendous, and very little is recycled. Same with plastic bags.
    I am glad I read this posting, because I never thought of getting a TerraPass for my Hybrid. I will now.

  18. Joyce

    Actually I have a small SUV with a Pass and my sister and her husband have small 2 SUVs both with Terrapasses and we live in New England. We all have our stickers on the back glass for everyone to see. I too am spreading the word as bike and public transportation isn’t an option where we live. Also, I have recently started talking to family, patients, etc about bottled water and am proud to use my cloth grocery bags. Hopefully more people will catch on….

  19. Jean

    I am a recovering SUV driver, and had a Terrapass. I now have a Hybrid, and I can’t tell you how good it feels. One of the things we are doing is not buying any plastic, especially bottled water. The impact of the amount of oil used to make plastic water bottles is horrendous, and very little is recycled. Same with plastic bags.
    I am glad I read this posting, because I never thought of getting a TerraPass for my Hybrid. I will now.

  20. Lala

    Well, this has chastenend me somewhat, because despite my true understanding that SUVs make sense for many people, I think I would’ve laughed to see a Terrapass on an SUV. I still find it hard to see the shear number of them in the densely populated city where I live – the Boston area. I have had the Terrapass bumper sticker (right under the tailpipe) for a year on my ’95 Infiniti sedan and have been surprised that I’ve not yet seen another one. My bumper sticker did inspire one person to come up to me in the parking lot to ask more about it. I do see a hybrid in my near future….but feel there is life left in this car. And besides, I can trash up my current car with no compunction, but spilling coffee and muffin crumbs and lugging bales of hay to the garden in a shiny new hybrid…I wouldn’t want to trash a HYBRID…!
    Just an FYI, my mother, aged mid-70s, works in an art gallery in a town frequented by tourists. She often tells me that she will tell the visitors and retirees from afar about Terrapass as a way to offset their leisure car and air travel. She doesn’t say “indulge” but that’s what it is – and so what. People aren’t going to stop going away for vacations anytime soon. She likes to ‘spread the word’ because they are often very excited by the idea, jot down the website address and engage with her on the subject. I view “indulging” as the first step down the slippery slope of caring more….they get the Terrapass email newsletter…they start to read it…

  21. Chad

    Actually, Tracy, I am well aware of the research that figures that “only” 15-20% of a vehicle’s net emissions come from its manufacture and disposal. However, that assumes one is an average driver. I drive substantially less than the average, so for me, that figure is more like 25-30%.
    The question of whether to upgrade to a more fuel efficent vehicle or continue to drive your old inefficient beater does not come down to a question of whether this will save CO2 emission (It will!), but rather whether it will do so in a cost-effective manner. In my case, and in the case of most people, it will not. I can offset 100% of the emissions from my beater ’til the day it dies for ~$200. It would cost me several thousand dollars extra in the long run to buy a new car several years before it is necessary….a very high price indeed to eliminate roughly half of my driving-related emissions. I am sure I can eliminate more for less elsewhere.

  22. Healthy Lakes

    I love the “myth-buster” list.
    Did you know that the cost of cleaning up the Great Lakes would actually SAVE billions of dollars in the long-term? Using economic studies, we can show politicians that it actually makes financial sense to take action!
    Take a look at the site:

  23. Carbonfund Steve

    Thanks, Adam, for doing this. At Carbonfund.org our anecdotal evidence from thousands of comments that come in with our donations directly supports these conclusions. Donors are always telling us this is just another step they are taking to reduce their environmental impact.
    No one goes around accusing people who buy green power of leaving their lights on all night, so where this whole–as you say–“evidence-free” indulgences BS got started, I have no idea. Thanks again.

  24. Sheryn

    I drive in two Colorado communities which are said to be quite enlightened: Steamboat Springs and Boulder. I’ve never seen a terrapass sticker besides my own (on my toyota pickup). I use it to spread the word, hoping others are curious. Boulder does have an out of proportion # of Priuses!

  25. Jen

    I have a VW Passat wagon, and have long lamented not having bought a diesel so I could convert it to SVO. I’ve felt guilty driving, especially when idling in traffic, etc, but just can’t afford a car payment, so what I have is what I have. It’s amazing how much better I feel about my car now that I’ve got my TerraPass stickers on 3 sides of it. I still try to keep trips to a minimum, and of course, we do all the stuff at home (chicobags, composting, contacting representatives,etc.) but offsetting has definitely improved my attitude toward my car.

  26. Esther

    I work third shift, so I am not able to utilize public transportation– it doesn’t operate in the wee hours of the morning; even if it did, I don’t want to wait at the bus stop in the middle of the night for safety reasons. So, I am going to purchase a TerraPass for my 1995 Honda Del Sol to compensate. We’ve stopped buying bottled water, are avid recyclers and use CF bulbs. We reuse greywater to flush our waste, use a clothesline to dry our clothes whenever possible and are always looking for other ways to green up, power down and reduce our culturally gluttonous energy appetite. Thanks to all who promote Green and carbon offset.