Junk clothing and joke clothing

Monday, December 23rd 2019
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In recent weeks two friends inadvertently coined similar phrases, in relation to what they saw as wrong with clothing today. 

One referred to the buying of large volumes of cheap clothes - often plastic, often made in poor labour conditions - as ‘junk clothing’. 

Junk clothing as in junk food. Oversold and overmarketed. And made to only briefly fulfill your need or hunger - with little lasting value. 

The phrase appealed to me because the alternative - ‘fast fashion’ - doesn’t capture any of the harm created by this volume of cheap consumption. 

The pertinent point is not that it’s fast, but that it’s junk. 

It gives little lasting satisfaction, it’s bad for you, and because it has to be produced so cheaply in such large quantities, it has many negative repercussions - both human and environmental. 

I may have mentioned this briefly before, but someone recently boasted to me how he was stripping back his wardrobe, and had bought three identical T-shirts from ASOS, so he could wear, wash and swap them every day. 

Nothing necessarily wrong with that. It’s perhaps the ultimate capsule wardrobe. But he boasted that they only cost £8 each. That this super-low price was impressive and to be celebrated. 

A price for clothing that low - in fact less than the cost of delivery - should set alarm bells ringing. It is impossible to make that n a sustainable way. 

And it’s those prices that explain why some online companies throw away anything that is returned - because it would be more expensive to re-pack it. It’s a particular problem this time of year.

The second phrase I heard stuck largely because of its similarity. 

A friend commented that the clothing in a particular gift shop was terrible, all ‘joke clothing’. 

Joke clothing and junk clothing. Both a complete waste.

Now I’m not going to say that there’s no place for humour in fashion. God knows, many fans of classic menswear are guilty of taking it all a bit too seriously. 

But why would you buy joke clothing? You don’t have a joke car, or a joke house, or joke furniture. 

Buying clothing purely for a joke - whether it’s a silly slogan or a hilarious Christmas jumper - is just as much a waste as junk clothing. Both are essentially made to be valueless, and disposable. 

It’s impossible for one person to make something a phrase. The linguistic equivalent of going viral. But if I had my way, both ‘junk clothing’ and ‘joke clothing’ would enter the lexicon in 2020. 

I love Christmas: it had a deep significance for me growing up, and I want to pass on that feeling of love and generosity to my children. 

But something about the volume of Christmas lights, sales shopping and cheap, novelty presents brings out the Scrooge in me. 

Make something, repair something, give something away. Just please don’t buy a hilarious Christmas mug. 

Happy holidays everyone. 

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George

Hi Simon and a happy Christmas to you.

At the time of your post last year on Christmas jumpers, I emailed my marketing department and attached the link to your post. You probably won’t be surprise to know I didn’t get a reply from the email.

I think the Christmas Jumper event is fuelling and helping to normalise waste.

These large companies who claim to know what’s going on in their supply-chains haven’t the first idea and are just keeping their fingers crossed hoping they don’t get found out. But as we found out this week the truth leaks out eventually.

Anonymous

Have to say that some others go into the Joke Clothing too… Drake’s Multicolour Suede ‘Fun’ Five-Pocket Chore Jacket is sold as fun rather than joke but it’s a fine distinction.

The phrase that grates on me is people talking about disposable clothing (aka junk clothes) as outside of bin bags things shouldn’t be bought with the intent of being thrown away. At least your associate is hoping to get many wears out of their £8 T-shirts.

Chancellor

I can’t argue when it comes to joke clothing that it has little merit and much that is negative.

I’d argue for more nuance when it comes to “junk” clothing. I think it is a miracle of modern manufacturing that we can produce clothing that is so inexpensive. Of course, where that low price is further lowered through abuse of workers or children, that’s unacceptable. But where workers are paid fairly and clothing is largely machine-made to keep prices down, that garments can be made so affordable for many is incredible.

For people, such as your friend with the three t-shirts, who’ll wear the clothes regularly, hopefully take care of them so they last relatively long, I see nothing wrong with that. Many people are not as fortunate as us to be able to afford shirts for a couple hundred dollars. Scores of people struggle to make ends meet and afford even a hundred dollars a year for clothing. That we have industry that can produce clothing in many sizes, that keeps people warm, looks smart, and is relatively durable and easy to maintain brings greater equality to our society. For all our praise of bespoke clothing and it’s longevity, I think the cost/wear of most of this inexpensive clothing is far greater than the high quality garments we enjoy–and that’s significant for people struggling to make ends meet.

What is truly junk clothing, I believe, is clothing that’s bought, maybe worn once or twice, and then lost in a closet, given away, or thrown out (“junk” by any definition of the word there). People who indulge in the “thrill” of shopping in this way, or buy far more clothing than they’ll ever need or use are the ones who are truly hurting sustainability of our environment. This is what we should reject as “junk clothing”.

Philip Burnard

You seem to forget, Simon, that a very considerable number of people can only afford what you call ‘Junk clothing’. It isn’t, for them, a case of saving for something better. It is a case of having something to wear.

Anonymous

I’m too poor to buy cheap.
I remember years ago the average spend of British women on clothing matched their French and Italian counterparts, the difference however being one of quantity vs quality.

Nothing like a good recession to make people realise they need to focus on quality in the future to get them through the tough times.

Keith Taylor

This comes up every time fast fashion is mentioned, but it doesn’t really pass the sniff test because good quality vintage clothing is readily available and often cheaper.

Right now the cheapest sweater available on the US H&M site, a pretty nondescript affair in 60% cotton, 40% polyester, is $14.99. It looks fine, I suppose, but even if you generously assume it didn’t come from a sweatshop it’s not going to keep you all that warm in the depths of winter, nor will it be made with longevity in mind. At the same price point on US eBay right now there are more than 1,000 vintage sweaters in cashmere alone from brands such as Lands End, Lyle & Scott, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Brooks Brothers and Thomas Pink. Expand the search to wool and you’ll get 5,000+ results. Expand again to cotton and you’ll get 30,000+.

I’ve been poor – i.e. I’ve fallen below the UK’s absolute poverty line – several times, and it taught me to be a frugal shopper. Having been in that situation I’m loath to criticise people trying to keep their kids clothed when they can barely afford to keep them fed, and I’m not inclined to chastise them for failing to consider the ethics of fast fashion when their own problems seem so overwhelming, but I want them to be aware that better options are available even on an almost nonexistent budget. You can get high quality from vintage, and you don’t have to keep throwing your money at businesses that have cruelty, de facto slavery and environmental vandalism baked into their business models.

Kenny

I agree. On holiday, I now take several pima cotton t-shirts from Uniqlo. They cost, on average, around £8, and are better quality than branded equivalents that cost several times their price. Am I supposed to consider them as junk clothing.

One major problem on this site is the conflation/confusion of “luxury” with style. One could buy a wardrobe full of expensive Neapolitan tailoring, shirts and accessories but dress like a tattooed hipster from Shoreditch or Hoxton. All you need is a beanie and white sneakers to complete the look.

Bob

Genuine question …… Is It really true that items are thrown away rather then repackaged ?
Over never heard of that and find it astonishing!

Anonymous

That goes well beyond clothing though; back in my call centre days for a well known catalogue company at the time, any furniture deliveries to Northern Ireland we’d do anything to get the customer to keep it as even writing off the full price was cheaper than having to collect it… most accepted a 50% discount though.

The staff shop was full of cages of unpackaged returned clothes with 90%+ discount which was still above the landed wholesale price

Anonymous

I hope the phrase junk clothing catches on. There is too much waste in the clothes industry. People will always desire something new and shiny though.
Joke clothing has been around for ages. I remember ‘novelty’ ties, jumpers etc as a phrase in the recent past- perhaps more euphemistic than joke clothing, less perjorative and more marketing focused.
I hope your friend gets good utility out of those ASOS t-shirts, it’s a good intention, though when they disintegrate you could steer him towards Sunspel or similar.
I will be purchasing from Blackhorse lane in the new year (weight loss means I need new jeans) the choice is based on their lifetime repair offering, and I’m looking forward to the ‘patina’ developing in the jeans.
Happy Christmas to you and your family! Looking forward to more from PS in 2020.

Stewart Bone

Going, Going by Philip Larkin nails your sentiments to a tee.

Fastship

Just recently, English Fine Cottons re-established a state of the art spinning mill in east Manchester making luxury yarns at their Tower Hill Mill which they have now almost completely restored. In addition to yarns for the industry they have also opened a factory shop where, amongst other items they sell the highest quality cotton tee-shirts for about £40. From spinning to dying to knitting to finishing there is less than 200 miles from raw cotton to finished tee-shirt.

It is said that shipping a tee-shirt from Asia to Europe via container cost around seven cents. Shipping the other way costs considerably less!

Fastship

…I ought to add that the raw cotton can be traced back to the farm in Californa too.

Colin

It’s a contentious subject. I wholeheartedly agree with the rationale and personally avoid buying junk clothing, however women’s clothing is by far the greater challenge. Here I have some sympathy, since there is far greater pressure on women to ‘look good’. Big brand fashion houses could and of course should do more, whether they will remains to be see as it would take a seismic shift across the whole buying spectrum. Maybe the environmental and social consequences will be enough or maybe they won’t!

Anonymous

Looking good? Junk clothing isnt particularly helpful for that. Now looking fashionable/on trend is a bigger problem for women especially when teamed with the silly idea of not being seen in the same outfit twice.

Adam Harvey

In full agreement here. I’ve learned that you can have fun with standard wardrobe purchases if you think it through well. A simple red toque & a green coat is festive and the clothing wasn’t purchased as a novelty.

Happy Christmas.

Anonymous

If your annual clothes budget was £200 what would you buy? Bearing in mind you might need some items for work as well as for the weekend, going to the gym and for dressing up for an interview or similar.

Annon

The root cause is overconsumption. Now that we are pointing fingers, do you think you are a minimalist ? What is the size of your closet ? Do you think the wealthy get a free pass because they shop in different stores, show new garments by the week on their blogs but look down upon the masses who aspire to play catch up ?

Bob

Junk fashion can be low-volume, expensive, and sustainable in the sense of minimal impact too.

Most haute couture fashion is junk fashion. Bits and piece of fabric put together in an non-functional, outlandish costume that only looks good on supermodels on a catwalk. And it’s hyper-expensive, with the designers revered like gods.

Harry

A common phrase heard: “You could’ve got the same thing at the market for only six pounds”. My response is always, “I don’t think so”. To many a hat is a hat; a scarf a scarf.

We ain’t normal 😉

Carl

Great post Simon!

I want to thank you for all the great posts this year and earlier. I also wish you and your family a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Your. Please skip posting every other day for two weeks, relax and have some quality family time. You deserve it!

Evan Everhart

Hi Simon,

The sad fact is, that as long as manufacturers continue to make that sort of trash, it will be purchased, and as long as society continues to wag the veritable dog as far as style and popular “taste” are concerned, people will continue to traipse about in joggers, sweat pants, hooded sweat shirts, yoga pants, cross-trainer sneakers, and under-shirts of all stripes, as if they were actual garments meant for practical all day wear, as opposed to garments intended for athletic pursuits, at least in concept. Our Western and largely our Global society, as a manifestation of this have taken to often times going about their daily lives, for much of their lives with the semblance of vagrants or of individuals who either sell drugs on a street corner, or use them there.

Another interesting thing which I noted during my many years working as an image consultant was, that when my clients would change from wearing such trash clothing to dressing appropriately for the occasion and for their station and age, they would begin to not only respect themselves more, but also others, and to conduct themselves better.

In the end, junk disposable clothing engenders much the same sense of self in the wear; that they are trash, and quite disposable and replaceable,

The dearer a thing is, the more it is valued.

Well that’s my take on it and I agree with yr position on this and also on the idea of those terms entering the English lexicon.

On a more jolly note, Sir; I wish you Very, Very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

Andy Poupart

Interesting piece, Simon. And Merry Christmas to you and your family.

I was unaware that some companies simply throw away returned clothing. That speaks volumes to the cost structure of low-price clothing. I notice on Instagram that many female influencers emphasize low- or extremely low-cost clothes, implying that such clothes are a good thing. I have to assume that, to use your example of the UKL8 shirt, someone is getting exploited somewhere along the line.

Valentine Hayes

I agree

Charles Rundle

Very thoughtful words. There is a kindness about you I admire in your words (reviews) and response to comments. Merry Christmas.

Anonymous

Hi Simon,

What do you think of the slack jacket as an in-between jacket? Would you consider it a staple? What color/type of cloth would you use?
https://alanflusser.com/product-profiles/the-slack-jacket

Stephen

A thought provoking article, as was the Christmas Jumper piece last year. I’d just like to bring some balance to this subject. The wasteful ‘tat’ around and not just at Christmas is a bit depressing. There are however many people who simply cannot afford anything else and as such this is the only way they can clothe their families and themselves, from well know inexpensive chain stores. For them it’s not ‘disposable’, they keep the items for as long as possible. Also there is a supply chain right through to point of sale, that provides gainful employment to people who would otherwise have none.
For others such as readers of PS, who by varying degree can I suspect, afford better, I would suggest it’s right to exercise some restraint ( and definitely stay away from the Koke stuff) , whilst not looking down on others less fortunate.
At all levels and price points of the clothing and fashion industry there will always be new season ranges. After all if we didn’t throw away and buy new, then the industry would simply wither and die.
Promoting so called ethical sustainability whilst laudable is not something in which everyone can participate. We should however, wherever we can encourage, promote and enable the donation of on-line returns to charities that would distribute clothing to those in need.
As I mentioned, I am just trying to bring some balance and context to a subject where there are not absolutes.
I would also like to take the opportunity to wish all involved with PS and the readership a Merry Christmas and all the very best for 2020.

Paul

It’s nice to have that balance, but I do think such comments should be made by those that have experienced poverty (I hope you don’t mind that I assume that’s not you).
Those that I know would find it very condescending for people to assume that they don’t buy very good quality things, and don’t buy from cheap, obviously poor quality stores.

Anonymous

Season Greetings to you and your family.
Wholeheartedly agree on joke clothing, as for fast fashion (so called due to the speed that high fashion garments are copied, produced and sent to retail outlets) it is something bordering on criminal.
https://fashionunited.uk/news/fashion/h-m-accused-of-burning-12-tonnes-of-new-unsold-clothing-per-year/2017101726341/amp
I do however agree with other comments re. affordability: £8 is High St. average as Primark, for example sell for £2+ or so. Who to? Young people spending pocket money or savings, low income earners and more surprisingly older, retired people. I visited a Primark one weekday morning to see what the fuss was about – hardly anyone under sixty!
You had a good start (Oxford) and have done well – all credit to you. Others are not so fortunate. Maybe Primark et al is the best that they can afford. ‘City’ suit donations are a mile away from their everyday reality of low material consumption, cheap food and cheaper clothing.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/education-48037122
https://amp.theguardian.com/society/2019/sep/12/sharp-rise-in-number-of-homeless-households-in-england

Peter

Why do you always make this about Simon? He makes perfectly valid points which you can respond to in the abstract without making it about him.

And as with another commenter above, I think it’s far more condescending to make assumptions about what poorer people buy and why, then anything in the piece.

Anonymous

Peter
Why do you have to criticise the contributions of others? Simon is not an arbiter or judge.

Peter

Because you’re criticising other people. Whether Simon went to Oxford or not (and the assumptions you base on that) has nothing to do with it.

You criticise the article because it doesn’t talk about people that are less fortunate. You would need a hundred caveats in every article to cover things like that.

And you talk about the less fortunate despite knowing nothing about it – just posting links which pretend to back up what you’re saying.

augustuspenn

As to an annual £200 clothing budget, what one would buy depends on what one already owns beyond one’s nakedness, and on dress codes at one’s work. But I’d note that on eBay I myself could find a Canali suit (charcoal, pinstriped), a Canali shirt, and a Canali tie, in my size and in colours that go well together, for about £150. That would deal with the interview, and probably also give me underwear/gym for my £200. Shoes are a problem, agreed. But, as to your main theme today, Simon, I would be recycling clothing rather than encouraging production of junk, joke, or jeerworthy disposables.

Also, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and your family!

Jason

Evan Everhart’s words starting “Another Interesting thing …..” are extremely salient and go some way to explaining why I’ve seldom met a badly behaved flaneur !
Happy Christmas to all.

Anonymous

Simon’s the author and the article reflects his thought, which, within comments, are personalised. It’s not condescending to make a statement about ‘the poor’ as you call them given the current economic climate particularly when it is positive in reflecting the current economic circumstances (see links). It’s interesting that you see ‘the poor’ as the other rather than just people. Your comment is unfounded and unqualified. Paul nor Peter know of the economic circumstances or life experience of other commenters – it’s presumptuous to think that they do. Poverty has many guises, sometimes economic often impacting education and opportunity. Perhaps more research?
https://amp.theguardian.com/society/2019/jul/29/uk-deep-poverty-study-austerity
https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN07096

Peter

Yes it is condescending. You are not in those circumstances and cannot speak for those people.

And then you make random accusations like saying I think of them as ‘other’? That’s just bizarre.

Stephen

Wow, interesting the emotive comments this post has generated. I’m all for debate and fortunately we live in a democracy, however I have to say the ‘tone’ did end up a bit churlish. I expect my comments didn’t help either.
Anyway perhaps time to move on. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

Jackson Hart

Slightly apropos to this topic, do you believe journalists that cover high-end luxury industries should have any ethical accountability with respect to reminding readers of their financial responsibilities to make purchases within their means; particularly when the journalistic reach spans a wide economic/age readership?

Industry icons, and particularly those that are journalists, have a powerful influence over their readership and people have a natural propensity to want to emulate these icons and purchase products featured in articles, even in financially reckless and ruinous ways. It wouldn’t be difficult for many people to run seriously afoul of their savings, retirement, parental, mortgage and other economic responsibilities tempting to imitate industry icons and purchasing featured products. While I don’t know of any statistics on this subject, I am willing to bet that sartorial addiction is no less prevalent than gambling and other prodigal habits – a habit for which there is no hotline.

And do you believe this accountability, if any, might be met in other than direct ways, such as by featuring more affordable products in addition to the high-end ones and featuring articles such as how to spend on a budget?

‘Just a thought, and thank you for the many thought-provoking and entertaining articles provided to your readers throughout the year!

MatthewV

I fully agree with your post Simon.

Have a very Merry (non junk or joke clothing filled) Christmas!

Janice Riggs

Do you mind if I start using these terms? I have a small blog that will help spread these ideas, in a modest way.

RG

There is always a hidden cost to cheap consumer goods. The negative externalities are human dignity, life safety, and the environment.

Consider Uniqlo. In terms of quality, it is really a step above others at the same price point. But their supply chain is a black hole. From Fast Retailing’s own sustainability report, more than half of their suppliers were given audit ratings that Fast Retailing considers “unacceptable.” There will never be repercussions from this as supplier codes of conduct and auditing is, in most cases, an entirely voluntary affair. Fast Retailing’s environmental reporting is nearly nonexistent.

There are many comments basically asking “what about the person who can only spend £200 on clothing?” We’d do well to remember the workers who perished in the Rana Plaza factory collapse–nearly all women–were likely earning about £70-75 a month.

For anyone looking to explore this subject further, start with ‘The True Cost’ documentary film.

John Plummer

Simon, this was a very interesting seasonal piece. Might i suggest another for next year?

I have a love/hate affair with winter/summer sales. Love because of the bargains that are possible (naturally), hate because it discourages buying things when they are actually needed, and encourages frivolous spending.

I personally prefer brands that do not have sales – such as Anglo Italian – as it removes the psychological stress (crazy, i know) that comes with wanting to get things at their lowest price. For example, PWVC – and many others – have a gradual sales process in which the number and extent of discount increase; i find this thoroughly annoying as it makes it hard to know when to pull the trigger, and feels like they are playing games with their customers. I would prefer sensible pricing from the start and no seasonal sales.

However, i commend Trunk for placing some of their most popular items on sale – this year both Incotex chinos and Valstarino suede blousons were one sale. I can’t imagine Trunk has any issues with shifting these on a regular basis, so i wonder why they are on sale. I would like to think – probably naively – this is done in appreciation to their customers.

In any case, an article on the pros and cons would be interesting, also from the perspective of retailers, if there is more to it than simply shifting unsold stock.

Tommy Mack

I know exactly what you mean about the stress of waiting for the best bargains: not buying until you see Final Reductions. Which ultimately means I don’t need or want the clothes that much and should think twice about spending any money on them.