Is carbon offsetting a gateway to wider environmental change?

Say a big hello to Attest Investigates! A series where I use the Attest platform to test anyone’s hypotheses and answer your burning questions.

As a trained scientist, I am obsessed with experimentation, empiricism and using data to make decisions. We’ll delve into all things consumer research to lift the lid on the most important unknowns for brands, as requested by you!

Introduction and hypothesis

Carbon offsetting initiatives are not a new idea, but they are growing in popularity as a way for consumers to practically effect some positive change to the planet. And while carbon offsetting only goes part of the way to broader changes in people’s behaviours, there’s no doubt the root idea is sound – give people the means to reduce overall CO2 emissions.

In this edition of Attest Investigates, I’ll explore people’s awareness of carbon offsetting, what would incline them to start using the services and whether those who use them make additional personal emission reductions.  

Here’s a (deliberately controversial) hypothesis for this edition: people who use carbon offsetting stop there, and show little other sustainable action.


For this research, we surveyed a nationally representative audience of 500 Brits in October 2021. We based this research in the UK as the submission came from a UK-based professional in the sustainability sector.

As ever, you can dig into the data for yourself and break it down using demographic filters over on the Attest dashboard (and you can get even more sustainability insights by downloading our report below).

Sustainability trends report 2022

Download our full report to stay on top of the latest environmental trends and sustainable business stories.

Get the full report


First things first

Encouragingly, a combined 98% of people believe climate change is happening. This is made up of 75% who believe human activity is mostly responsible, and 23% who think other factors are primarily to blame.

More people know what offsetting is than don’t

Our research shows that 11% of Brits have explored a carbon offsetting service. Just over two fifths (41%) know what offsetting is but haven’t used it, and a further 48% don’t know what it is. 

I’m pleasantly surprised by how many people know what offsetting is – the core concept has been around for a long time, but recent trends and publicity can make it feel like a relatively new phenomenon. But the 48% that’s still in the dark is significant. 

As we find with a lot of sustainable initiatives, awareness is often lacking, so anything brands can do to boost overall knowledge will only boost uptake.

Interestingly it’s the over 40s who are more aware of carbon offsetting. For over 40s, we find the opposite split to the national average: 48% of over 40s know what it is but haven’t used it, while 42% of over 40s don’t know what it is. 

Here we find that older people seem more attuned to green issues, which is often seen as a larger trend in younger generations. This may be more about the product (carbon offsetting) than the movement (climate change), yet if carbon offsetting is the product that helps with the movement, then the greatest awareness of that product is notably in the over 40s. 

Offsetting users want to reduce overall consumption

People talk about a specific flaw with the idea of carbon offsetting: it doesn’t encourage people to reduce their personal carbon footprint, it only offers a way to pay other people to make reductions instead. 

With this in mind I wanted to find out what motivates people to use offsetting services. I asked the people who told us they use offsetting services to rank different motivating factors. 

The top two results (by a pretty emphatic distance) were: 

  • Encouraging me to reduce my overall energy usage, while also offsetting my consumption – 71% put this in either first, second or third place (out of seven)
  • Offering offsetting activities that are genuinely beneficial to the environment – 46% placed this first, second or third

Going into this research I had dreaded the outcome (hence my alarming hypothesis) that users of offsetting services aren’t bothered about making material changes to their personal carbon footprints. But I’m glad to report that there is definitely the desire to make meaningful reductions in carbon emissions. 

Potential customers have different priorities

When asked what features are most important to them if they were choosing an offsetting service, people who haven’t used one before ranked cost and ease of use as their top factors.

Cost is the clear priority, with 46% putting this at the top of their list. Comparatively, less than a fifth (19%) ranked ease of use at number one.

What’s clear from this is that there are some fundamental hurdles to overcome if offsetting services are to bring new users into the fold. Clear communication of value/cost and ease of use are quick wins for offsetting brands. 

Who is the natural ‘owner’ or ‘purpose brand’ for carbon offsetting? Great question! There isn’t one, and we see in this result set exactly how consumers will support and choose a winner – if only a brand can emerge that can build around these consumer needs.

Cost becomes slightly less important for people who already know what offsetting services are: 37% of this group ranked cost as their top priority, which still put it in the top spot for this group. It’s therefore a no-brainer for brands to do what they can to increase knowledge and availability of offsetting, so that cost can become less of an overall barrier to customer acquisition.

We see the need for education when we look at other sustainable activities. When asked which activities people practise, there’s an overall under-indexing among people who don’t know what carbon offsetting is, and for people who don’t believe humans are largely responsible for climate change. Meanwhile those who know what offsetting is and who believe that climate change is human-made practise more sustainable activities overall. 

My hypothesis has been disproved (thankfully!). 

Yet again here is some valuable intelligence about how carbon offsetting providers can win over each segment of the population; there are different underlying drivers to understand and build around.

This insight only emphasises the need for clear education of climate issues and what people can do to help. 

Future scope

It would be great to ask more users of carbon offsetting initiatives about how they make their choices and what other sustainable actions they take. We’d use a qualifying question to make sure a full survey would be completed by users of offsetting services. 

And exploring the global picture would be another natural next step. At a base level, finding out people’s differing (or consistent) attitudes towards climate change, and going deeper into opinions of carbon offsetting services would be really interesting.


As is so often the case with issues like climate change, information, awareness and availability of a better choice is the key. The data we’ve uncovered here hammers that point home. 

Armed with good information, communicated in a clear way, people will make the fundamental changes needed to do right by the planet – but, as we’ve seen, with a wide array of motivations and buying factors in mind. 

Brands must invest in knowledge-building to bring people on board with green initiatives. 

And, of course, checking in with consumers directly to understand opinions and behaviours is a piece of the puzzle that can’t be left out. Through consumer research you’ll gain that vital understanding into where consumers are at the moment, and learn what it’ll take for them to join your journey.

Learn about your market’s opinions and behaviours

Ask real consumers what they think about your brand, product and market with Attest consumer insights

Get to know your customers

Jeremy King


Jeremy founded Attest in mid-2015, following 9 years leading global teams across industries at McKinsey & Company. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, originally trained as a scientist with a focus on genetics, ecology and animal behaviour, and also helps to improve state primary schools with his charity work.

See all articles by Jeremy