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User as an ethical consumer: From an attention economy to an environmentally conscious system

Photo by Ethical consumer

This paper aims to discuss the transition from users being treated as products of tech giants’ marketing tactics, to questioning how they could channelise this attention economy to ensure that businesses are more ethical and eco-friendly in their approach. It further goes on to understand heteromated labour and how it contrasts with the IKEA effect, and its usage in a more sustainable system. Finally, it highlights the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on consumers and how organizations have begun supporting ethical consumerism.

I. Attention Economy

In the days gone by, when we used to ponder over scarce resources, we thought about raw materials like oil or coal. But in today’s Age of Information, even our own attention span can be considered a scarce resource. We are constantly bombarded with data from social media and TV, and it is difficult for one particular source to catch hold of our attention and truly influence us.

So an easily distracted audience means a chance for marketers to devise new strategies, be it through an addictive UI or via social media influencers who endorse their products. In 2019, 89% of marketers say Instagram is strategically important to their influencer marketing strategy — which is greater than any other social media channel in the industry. Subsequently, human attention has become commodified, and harvesting this attention is an important part of generating revenue in various numerous business models.

Tim O’Reilly, founder of the famous O’Reilly Media, had originally tweeted about this concept, that if you’re not paying for a product, then by default you are the product being sold. For example, Google and its consumer services like Google search are free. Even then, more than 80% of its revenue comes from Google ads, which generated $147 billion last year. Not only that, this advertising is highly targeted because Google tracks users history. (Forbes, 2012)

Media sources like TV ads are the main epicentres for collecting attention, which is in turn sold to advertising industry customers. Take for example, Facebook. Its $7.05 revenue per person is via ads, in which advertisers can bid for the ability to direct their advertisements towards users based on location, demographic information, or profile information. The more viewers collected = more attention sold, driving up the price of advertising. Our very own attention is basically used as a product against us, so that we become the customers of a particular service or product.

Figure 1: An artist’s impression of facebook capturing each user’s data as a
separate product for targeted advertising.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

So how can we break the cycle of being the product of the attention economy?

II. Product as an extension of users: Giving users more control in forming the product

Rather than targeting potential customers with a constant chain of advertisements, firms like IKEA use the concept of psychological ownership:

“Imagine that you built a table. Maybe it came out a little bit crooked. Probably your roommate or your neighbor would see it for what it is, you know, probably a shoddy piece of workmanship. But to you, that table might seem really great because you’re the one who created it. It is the fruit of your labor, and that is really the idea behind the ‘Ikea effect.’” (Daniel Mochon, 2019)

Figure 2: The illustration depicts how even a mishaped origami piece can seem alluring to the user who created it

(TED Ideas, 2019) Retrieved from

This is exactly what popular furniture chain IKEA’s Do-it-yourself (DIY) philosophy signifies: The user feels more connected to his/her purchase if he/she assembles it.Take another example, the t-shirt company Threadless, which allows users to submit t-shirt designs and then vote on the most appreciated ones. After the introduction of this feature in 2006, the form sold 60,000 t-shirts per month with a profit margin of 35% more than other traditional clothing retailers. (HBR, 2018)

III. Two sides of a coin: DIY products as heteromated labour and a promoter of sustainability

“While in automation machines did what humans could not do with ease and efficiency, in heteromation the opposite is the case. Put differently, the human others are doing much of the work, while machines are given the credit. “ (Ekbia Nardi 2019)

This reading by renowned professors Hamid R. Ekbia and Bonnie A. Nardi, discussed in one of the ‘Foundations of HCI’ lectures by our esteemed instructor Sai Shruthi Chivukula, states that heteromated labor involves the economic contribution of real effort, labor, and time by people who are actually doing things that were previously done by paid workers and machines. This contrasts with DIY product services like IKEA.

The furniture firm cuts waste and boosts efficiency through optimizing its packaging. For example, IKE saves more than $1.2 million every year as breaking their sofa into many pieces reduces its packaging size by 50%. Moreover, money is not the only benefit of package optimization. Every year, they help eliminate 100 tons of CO2 emissions, save nearly 3,000 trees each year and 9,500 fewer gallons of diesel fuel is consumed per year in transportation. (Chainanalytics, undated) In fact it is a win-win for even customers, as the company gets to reduce the purchase price of the sofas by 14% without compromising on quality. Hence even though the firm’s factory didn’t assemble the sofas and send it to the consumers, and the latter had to assemble it themselves, it benefited both the environment and the human owners of the sofa. This customer who purchases products that protect the environment, is said to be part of being an ethical consumer.

IV. Support for environmentally conscious companies

Now the question arises, why would all businesses want to be more ethical? Are there any more incentives for the latter?

“Imagine a world where purchasing power was centered firmly around notions of environmental protection, human rights, fair trade and community development. A world where brands compete with each other to attract the attention of consumers based on social and ethical platforms.” (Berlin, 2021)

This article on Good Trade by Luke Berlin talks about a future world, where brands would be successful on the basis of their involvement in sustainability and social betterment, on the basis of corporate social responsibility. Infact this change has already begun. In a very recent Forrester survey of 600 U.S. adults, 47% of all respondents associate the social, environmental and political views of CEOs with those of the businesses they lead. In fact, 43% say they’re more likely to trust brands when they take a stance on social and environmental issues in particular. (Swant, 2021)

V. A black swan event: The impact of Covid-19 pandemic on consumers

As per a 2020 global survey by management consultancy firm Accenture, 60% of consumers were reporting making more environmentally friendly purchases since the start of the pandemic. It added that 9 out of 10 of that percentage said they were likely to continue doing so. This makes the pandemic a black swan event i.e a surprise occurrence that has a major, lasting impact. They are not possible to due to their rarity. (Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2010)

Even the number of people buying organic food increased, with the US organic products market forecasted to have seen sales rise by 9.5% last year to $252bn. More people also chose to shop locally, and from small businesses, thus reducing the environmental impact of product deliveries, by cutting the length of supply chains. UK clothing firm Frugi saw sales rise 60% last year, with its clothes being solely made from recycled plastic and organic cotton. (BBC, 2021)

VI. Organizations supporting ethical consumerism

There is a British organization called the Ethical Consumer Research Association (ECRA), founded in 1989, which issues a magazine that publishes ratings of products based on 19 criteria: This includes animal testing, pollution, workers’ rights, political activity and company ethos. We should spread more awareness of such initiatives by firms. (Ethical consumer, 2020)

In the US, B Lab is a nonprofit site which certifies companies that “meet the highest standards of verified, overall social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability.” Even China has implemented an innovative approach to monitoring and regulating the behaviour of businesses via a new social credit system, which in turn applies credit ratings across political, social and environmental sectors. For example, a firm breaching emissions targets will receive a lower rating, resulting in negative measures, higher taxes, or other sanctions. (Watkins, 2019)

VII. Conclusion

Even though it can be challenging at first for many firms, to make a business case solely based on environmental concerns as a primary objective, this should be mutually dependent on being ethical and bringing onboard more loyal customers. Further, the ethical consumer — intention gap needs to be analysed, without it being lost in translation for customers in their daily lives. The perils of being simply trapped in an attention economy can be converted into building a more sustainable future, while heteromated labour for self-made products can build skills and be lighter on the pocket for the human owners, and even greener on the environment in the aforementioned logistics cases.


  1. Swant, M. (2021, April 20). Silence Is Not An Option: Research Shows Consumers Expect CEOs To Take A Stand On Political Issues. Forbes.
  2. Joy, A. (2021, February 18). The Attention Economy: Where the Customer Becomes the Product. Business Today Online Journal.
  3. How Customers Come to Think of a Product as an Extension of Themselves. (2018, September 26). Harvard Business Review.
  4. Norton, M. I., Mochon, D., & Ariely, D. (2012). The IKEA effect: When labor leads to love. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 22(3), 453–460.
  5. Shaw, D. (2015, January 23). Care and Commitment in Ethical Consumption: Journal of Business Ethics.
  6. Taleb, N. N. (2010). The Black Swan: Second Edition The Impact of the Highly Improbable Fragility” (2nd ed., Vol. 1). Random House Publishing Group.
  7. Latham, B. K. (2021, January 14). Has coronavirus made us more ethical consumers? BBC News.
  8. Quoteresearch, A. (2017, July 16). You’re Not the Customer; You’re the Product — Quote Investigator. QI.
  9. Our Ethical Ratings. (2021, February 22). Ethical Consumer.
  10. Goodson, S. (2012, July 31). If You’re Not Paying For It, You Become The Product. Forbes.
  11. Nardi, B. (2017). Automation and Heteromation: The Future (and Present) of Labor | Platypus. Platypus.
  12. EKBIA, H. R., & NARDI, B. A. (2019). Keynes’s grandchildren and Marx’s gig workers: Why human labour still matters. International Labour Review, 158(4), 653–676.
  13. Blanck, T. (2021, October 15). How IKEA Saves Millions Through Packaging Optimization. Chainalytics.
  14. Llp, L. W. (2019, June 10). China’s Environmental Social Credit System Encourages Self-Regulation by 2020. Environment, Land & Resources.




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Sampada Bhatnagar

Sampada Bhatnagar

Writer at The Startup, UX Collective, Geek Culture & Nerd for Tech | Grad Student at IUB | Believer Of Creativity & Curiosity Combo

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