Luxury goods tend to be associated with exclusivity rather than inclusivity, but thanks to the universal scrutiny of social media and consumer activism, high-end brands are under increasing pressure to be seen as companies who care. In this vein, some have spent large sums on initiatives that address environmental concerns or used their expertise to help deal with the pandemic. Gucci-owner Kering group, for example, has set a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2025. In response to COVID-19,  Burberry donated more than 100,000 pieces of PPE to the NHS and healthcare charities. Meanwhile, LVMH used its perfume manufacturing facilities to make free hand sanitizer for the healthcare system in France.

Yet, it remains unclear whether consumers can reconcile the exclusive nature of luxury brands – selling at prices many cannot afford – with a public image of sustainability and environmental or social awareness. A range of studies has shown that consumers are ambivalent about such efforts. Research into millennials’ attitudes, for instance, showed that younger consumers see the concepts of luxury and sustainability as contradictory, which is understandable, as some brands’ apparent attempts to tackle social challenges have come after they received widespread criticism for their own apparent failings, as opposed to in a more proactive capacity. 

Gucci, for example, boasts a $1.5 million plan to support young designers from underrepresented backgrounds, but it was only launched after the brand faced accusations of racism in connection with a jumper design. And while Prada has spoken out against racial injustice on social media, the company has also been forced to apologize for certain merchandise that was deemed to be racist. Still yet, Dior launched a message of support and solidarity accompanied with a black background, but again, it comes after allegations of cultural appropriation.

All the while, a New York Times report showed that among the top designers and creative directors in the fashion world, only four are black. Models and photographers from diverse backgrounds are also severely underrepresented in the luxury fashion industry. Virgil Abloh, head of men’s fashion at Louis Vuitton, is one of the few black figures to have reached the summits of a luxury brand. 

Mutually exclusive?

Against this complex backdrop, we asked members of the British public for their thoughts on inclusivity campaigns from luxury brands. Overall, consumers – particularly in lower income brackets – had a negative response. The majority of the people we surveyed (87 percent) believe luxury brands would fare better at becoming more inclusive by focusing on fair pay and workers’ rights. Efforts towards climate change initiatives were also popular (79 percent), as was the notion of efforts aimed at reducing racial and gender inequality.

Respondents also welcomed the idea of luxury brands selecting partners and suppliers in response to social and political situations, with some citing Burberry’s decision to boycott cotton from the Xinjiang region of China following allegations of human right abuses. Overall, our survey suggests that – despite some progress – much remains to be done by luxury brands. The question remains whether an industry that revels in exclusivity can embrace inclusivity in a way that drives real societal change? 

As consumers increasingly demand transition towards an inclusive society, a unique window has opened for luxury brands to become better agents of social change by aligning their missions, values, and strategies to social purpose. And by virtue of their cultural authority, luxury brands are in a key position to lead business action. They have an opportunity to use their influence and actions to advance public debate and accelerate behavioral change. If they do not take it, any gestures towards inclusivity risk being seen as nothing more than an opportunistic exercise in public relations and image.

Paurav Shukla is a Professor of Marketing at the University of Southampton.

Dina Khalifa is a Senior Research Associate at the University of Cambridge. (This article was initially published by The Conversation.)