Many would agree that Western societies are immersed in cycles of production and consumption. There is no end to what can be marketed and sold; products, food or even intangible items such as information or ideas – contemporary society demands that everything is a commodity and as such must have a certain value assigned to it. The fact that we’re living in a digital age, coupled with an economy that thrives based on these cycles, the possibilities of what one can buy, eat, hear, see and so on is endless and in many ways exhaustive. The messages we choose to ‘download’ and focus our attention on has pegged human attention as a valuable resource. As businesses compete for visibility in an overcrowded marketplace, the value of collective attention can be considered almost priceless.
If we consider attention in terms of scarcity, it is perhaps the most valuable market resource of the 21st century. Personally, it’s not often that I find a billboard that I pass on the train, or an obligatory 30-second advert on a YouTube video will resonate with me. I’m sure a lot of people have experienced similar feelings of ‘tuning out’, a perfectly normal response to avoiding sensory overload. While there seems to be no limit to the number of things that can demand our attention, on the flip side we only have so much to give – attention spans decreasing as humans get better and better at filtering the unimportant.
In a marketplace saturated by advertising, it is interesting to watch how profitability and sustainability begin to intersect. Businesses can no longer simply demand consumer attention, but now they must also earn it. A plus side of living in the information era is that there is now increased awareness across environmental and social issues, which has guided consumers to become smarter, more informed and more selective than ever before.
In fact, a study by Nielsen in 2016 showed 66% of respondents were willing to pay more for sustainable goods; a figure that has risen steadily for the past 5 years.
As supply chain transparency increases and brands with questionable practices come under fire, consumer attention is turning to those who are actively working to change their business functions to create positive social impact. Prevalent issues regarding animal cruelty or child labour within industries such as food manufacturing or textiles are being driven through multiple platforms and forums, exposing ethical concerns and bad business practices. This use of technology continues to increase, intuitively interacting with its users and highlighting information, so much so, that it could soon be used to hold people and businesses accountable if they are not adhering to sustainable and nurturing practices.
Perhaps the most empowering realisation is that choice can lie with the individual consumer. As a society, we are moving into a unique position where we can use our collective attention to support brands that are tripling the bottom line. By saving our most valuable resource, our attention, for the companies who are addressing environmental or social issues, we can play our part in pushing for positive systemic change. Digital expert Kevin Kelly states, “when there are millions of options out there, most of which can be found for free, choosing something you really want or better still “being found” is extremely valuable”.