RMIT University
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Meaning Making in Transitionary Times: A Historic-Cultural Analysis of Sustainability's Inclusion in The Luxury Electric Car Market

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posted on 2024-06-27, 02:39 authored by Stephanie Yesmukanova
This thesis investigates why and how sustainable luxury has become a culturally legitimate form of consumption. Luxury and sustainability hold quite opposing connotations: luxury is linked with social stratification, ostentation, superficiality, and self-indulgence, while sustainability is associated with moderation, ethics, equity, and altruism. Despite these contradicting meanings, the emergence of sustainable luxury has become a well-established and growing market trend where consumers distance themselves from traditional luxury goods and switch to sustainable luxury. To unravel the paradox of the ‘sustainable luxury’ concept, I turn to consumer culture research, which explores how the marketplace shapes the creation and negotiation of the meaning of consumer goods, and pose two research questions: “How has sustainable luxury acquired its culturally legitimate meaning?” and “How do luxury consumers negotiate identity tensions during macro transitions?” This doctoral study is grounded in a theoretical framework of meaning making that highlights the role of both the macroenvironment and individuals in shaping and reshaping the meaning of consumer goods throughout historically evolving times. The modern ability to redefine the meaning of luxury comes from the changing macroenvironment: digitalisation, the liquefication of consumption, and the shift toward experiential forms instead of material ownership together with other macroenvironmental shifts allow consumers to reconsider how they interpret luxury goods in their daily lives. As the meaning of luxury has remained mostly unchanged since Veblenian times, the recent inclusion of sustainability in the luxury discourse now challenges exclusivity, excessive materiality, and conspicuousness in the meaning of luxury. In addressing the problem of sustainable luxury's conceptually contradicting meaning, I focused on the context of the automotive sector where luxury electric vehicles (EV) represent a particularly illustrative case of sustainable luxury. The rich cultural history of luxury cars and the evident recent shift to a new sustainable mode of operation make automobiles an instrumental context for the historical-cultural analysis of the evolving meaning of luxury. This doctoral study, based on Williams’ (1961) cultural analysis, was conducted through two research stages: one consisted of a historical content analysis of luxury cars’ public representation and the other involved carrying out and analysing in-depth interviews with owners of luxury electric vehicles. The findings from the secondary sources answered the first research question. The examination of four luxury periods from 1855 until 2023 demonstrated how the macroenvironmental shifts – expressed amidst the combined forces of politics, economics, technology, and dominant cultural aspirations – changed over time to gradually add layers of sustainable connotations to the meaning of luxury (despite the presence of greater or smaller fluctuations in the manifestations of overconsumption, materiality, and opulence in each period). The meaning of luxury has transitioned to include sustainability because the macroenvironmental shifts that historically accumulated sustainable connotations coincided with modern ‘lean and green’ dominant cultural aspirations to shape an emergent discourse of sustainability. The interview findings answered the second research question by unveiling six identity negotiation practices luxury consumers in the study adopted based on their position on the value spectrum between fading and emerging dominant cultural aspirations. During macroenvironmental shifts, these consumers negotiated identity tensions by navigating between fading and emerging discourses and their corresponding webs of meanings. The personal value fit and preference of either discourse influenced which of the six identity negotiation practices each consumer chose to pursue: merging, compartmentalising, justifying, luring, normalising, or pioneering. Overall, this study’s addition of fading and emergent discourses to the concept of coexisting competing discourses in meaning making is important, because it provides a more in-depth explanation for the conceptual reconfiguration of the social world during the significant cultural changes that occur with digitalisation, liquid consumption, experiential shifts, and other transformations of modern reality. The findings from this research provide a more comprehensive understanding of how consumers navigate their identity shift during macroenvironmental shifts, particularly how they manage tensions arising from competing fading and emerging discourses. The framework of circularity in meaning making during macroenvironmental shifts also helps explain how values that were dominant in society become no longer appealing and how the macroenvironment and individuals respond to the tension between fading and emerging discourses by adapting their attitudes and behaviour and reconstructing the evolving meaning of the symbolic consumer good. This thesis offers four theoretical contributions: 1) a historical-cultural explanation for the compatibility of luxury and sustainability; 2) the dynamics of the luxury consumer identity; 3) the explanation of the transition of luxury’s meaning towards democratisation, dematerialisation and inconspicuousness, and 4) the symbolic meaning of sustainable consumer good. From a managerial perspective, this research offers three practical implications: 1) strategic recommendations for addressing sustainable consumers for the luxury marketers, 2) actionable insights for policy makers on how to use current cultural discourse to promote sustainable adoption further, and 3) specific advice to electric car producers on overcoming consumer barriers in switching to EVs.


Degree Type

Doctorate by Research


© Stephanie Volcon 2024

School name

Economics, Finance & Marketing, RMIT University

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