by Michael dEstries
Categories: Causes, People, Transport.

terra.jpgAs we reported earlier, this year’s Oscars did away with the famous luxury gift bags often handed out to presenters and instead provided a less lavish, more eco-friendly alternative. The company TerraPass teamed up with artist Simon Pearce to give each participant a beautiful glass sculpture and 100,000lbs of carbon offsets. This gift essentially helped make each celebrity carbon-neutral for one year.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Tom Arnold, Chief Environmental Officer at TerraPass and one of the original founders. We covered the Oscars arrangement, the arguments against offsetting, and why making John Travolta carbon-neutral might just break the bank.


‘Razzi: How did the Oscars relationship come about?

Arnold: You know, it was actually a really interesting take on the Academy gifting process. They put together a pitch – and our reaction was, “Sure, you can pitch us!”—and it kind of went from there. It took a long time to actually get an agreement. The Academy is very sensitive to these arrangements. The caught a lot of flak for over-indulgent gift bags in the past and they didn’t really want to call a lot of attention to this. At the same time, whenever someone is presenting for you, you want to give them a nice token of your appreciation. So this comes with a really beautiful glass sculpture from Simon Pearce; who has this great sustainable workshop up in Quechee, Vermont. The gift also comes with 100,000lbs of CO2 reductions.

‘Razzi: How did Simon Pearce become involved?

Arnold: We needed something luxury and celebrity-appropriate. Somehow, little clear TerraPass stickers for your car probably wouldn’t cut it! We wanted something material that you could remember the night by, which is why we went down that road and this is how Pearce was introduced. He’s a real interesting guy. When he came to the States, he sited the Quechee river there so he could do his hydro-electric stuff. He’s the real deal – he walks the walk.

‘Razzi: As part of your Oscars gift, you’ve offered to give any of the 90 or so presenters the opportunity to meet with you and have a detailed carbon footprint created; which you’ll then offset. Has anyone taken you up on this offer?

Arnold: Um, no, not yet. The booklet is currently online. We created this collection of celebrity-appropriate tips. We would love to have someone come to us. We would love to get them on a carbon diet. We’ve done this for a number of very wealthy people and for a lot of them, it has been an eye-opener. We do the calculations and then we tell them where the biggest problems are. You have to understand where the big emissions are coming from before you start to manage them.

Not everyone is going to live like Ed Begley Jr; but if we can get people to think about using solar power for their homes or to heat their pools instead of using natural gas, then we’re already making a difference. These are really simple things that are well within the reach of celebrities and can kind of transform the way they think about climate change and what they can do to help.

‘Razzi: Not all celebrities have the same carbon footprint. Academy presenters like John Travolta and Tom Cruise are often labeled as “carbon criminals”. Will they get a higher offset than the others?

Arnold: They have to take us up on the offer [of a customized offset]. I don’t know if we’re going to do Travolta’s 747s – I think that would wipe our little piggy bank out. We decided to go with a flat 100,000lbs across, because we really don’t know what people’s true behaviors are. We made some assumptions; we talked to different people that hang around with those in Hollywood. We put a really big home in there, 20,000 miles driving, 20 hours in a jet, all types of things that add up to what is a fairly large footprint. Then, we balanced that out with investments in green energy and other projects. Obviously, the big thing here is to use this gift to open people’s minds a little more. We want them to think about their footprint and to use their influence to get others to think about these same things.

‘Razzi: People often criticize offsetting as simply a free pass to indulge. How do you respond to that argument?

Arnold: Obviously, it’s not a reason to indulge. Over the next couple months we’re going to be promoting this a little more methodically. We get all kinds of letters saying “You’ve opened my eyes and really changed my behavior.” We got one a few weeks ago from a guy saying, “Guys, I love what you’re doing. I traded in my SUV for a Prius. Please send me the smaller sticker.” We get tons of those! Another guy wrote in and said, “First of all, I’m a Republican and second of all, I’ve started to hang-dry my laundry and my neighbors are complaining. Does anyone know if I have the right to hang-dry my laundry?” In many ways we’re helping people change their behaviors. We’re proud of our little “offset + information” format. We have a weekly newsletter with almost 20,000 readers. There’s always something to work on. From joining a car pool to checking the air pressure of your tires. It shows you that this is a journey and from day one we’re going to help you and be your guide along the way.

‘Razzi: How eco-friendly is TerraPass as a business?

Arnold: Well, I don’t own a car. I take Cal-Train into the city and then ride my bike to the office. The largest piece of my carbon footprint by far (beyond the occasional ski trip) is the travel that I have to do for TerraPass.

‘Razzi: And I take it you fly commercial? Or do you have private jets? (grin)

Arnold: <Laughter> Ah, no. I’ll never fly on a private jet. If they would offer the cargo hold, I might get in. We talk about this internally. You know, if you have to go to NYC for one meeting, we try and practice what we call “Trip Recycling”. If we have to travel somewhere, we try and fit in as much into that trip as possible – over three or four days—and really make it a productive exercise.

This is all about helping people with different steps. For some people, the first time they think about their footprint is when they plug their car into our carbon calculator. I mean, we’re doing about 1 million sessions a year right now – and ½ million people are calculating their emissions, which means that ½ million people are getting the wake up call. Some of these people are very familiar with this issue and some of them have absolutely no idea. So it’s kind of this great place where you can ask the question of “What can I do?”

‘Razzi: What does the future hold then for carbon offsets? Are you planning on expanding internationally?

Arnold: We already sell internationally, but I think you’re going to find that we’re pretty focused. We’re going to stay focused here on America. There are probably about 5 million people who would buy a Terrapass or Native Energy and it’s a matter of reaching them and giving them value. The whole thing doesn’t work unless a customer is excited about it. And so, that’s what we’re working on.

For more information on TerraPass, please visit their site. Alternatively, the same sculpture available to the presenters and performers at the 79th Academy Awards is available to you. It also comes in a 5-year version that includes a tour of the Simon Pearce studio and a meal for two at a Simon Pearce restaurant.


About Michael dEstries

Michael has been blogging since 2005 on issues such as sustainability, renewable energy, philanthropy, and healthy living. He regularly contributes to a slew of publications, as well as consulting with companies looking to make an impact using the web and social media. He lives in Ithaca, NY with his family on an apple farm.

View all posts by Michael dEstries →
  • Preston

    Some concerns that need to be addressed:
    1.) Conserve first, offset second.
    2.) What do you do with the money that you receive? Where does it go? New projects? Old projects? Trees? Wind? Solar? Just be clear about it.
    3.) If you run for profit, what percentage of my $15 goes to paying for your organization? How does that compare to other companies, profit and not-for-profit? Just be clear about it.

    Let’s get around the fact that people enjoy the newsletter and are learning how to lessen their footprint. That’s a great service, but it’s unrelated to the offset. A free blog/newsletter can teach people how to lessen the carbon footprint. What’s the offset going towards. Let’s get this all very clear and lucid so people can buy offsets and get a true benefit from the offset.

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  • michael

    Thanks, Preston. Those are great follow-up questions that I can put together for Tom. Anyone have any others?

  • Tom Arnold

    Hi Preston
    1) We totally agree.
    2) Our projects are pretty carefully explained on our site. They are new clean energy projects. No Trees. We also publish a product content label with each TerraPass so you know exactly where your money is going. Take a quick look there and ask more questions or give us a call, we’re happy to chat.
    3) We don’t disclose this, but its pretty standard retail margins. We think its more important to deliver a verified reduction at a quality price. We’re about $9 per metric ton. Shop around, you’ll find prices between $5 and $40 a ton, with non-profits at both ends of the spectrum.

    Thanks for your interest and pushing hard on the questions.


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