Philip Hensher: Sock it to 'em, Paxo – you're fighting for us all

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The Independent Online

Jeremy Paxman has found himself speaking for the nation, in an area where spokesmen often prefer to remain anonymous. He wrote, in a personal capacity, to Stuart Rose, the chairman of Marks & Spencer, on the subject of underwear and socks. Mr Paxman, like many of us, had long been buying his essentials from Marks & Spencer, but recently had begun to find that the quality was not what it used to be. In Mr Paxman's words, the pants no longer offered "adequate support". He did not feel that he was alone in this; raising the under-discussed subject with his friends, he uncovered what he called "widespread gusset anxiety".

When Marks & Spencer's socks were put on, they, too, revealed a problem. They did not seem to last as well as they used to, often developing a hole around the toe very quickly. The top of the sock no longer had the old-fashioned rib effect, meaning that they had a tendency to fall down. Mr Paxman's e-mail to Stuart Rose was a private one, but someone at Marks & Spencer's was obviously more struck by the comic potential than by the terrible publicity for M&S, and leaked the thing.

It's a great shame that the initial media response was of general jocularity. Some things, like pants and socks, or public lavatories, strike the English mind as being so intimate as to have immediate comic potential. The comic potential obliterates what are surely very important subjects for concern. The very important amenity of public lavatories in this country has been more or less withdrawn without protest, since anyone who raises the subject will only be listened to in gales of giggles.

All men, unless they are particularly bold Italians between May and September, wear pants and socks every day. They are one of those things which need to be hard-wearing, reasonably priced, and practical. Most men prefer them in natural fibres, to stay where you place them when you get dressed, and not to be worthy of comment on their own.

But can you now find these things? I am rather with Jeremy Paxman on this one. Marks & Spencer certainly used to sell these vital basics at a reasonable, though not exaggeratedly cheap price, and they were good, solid, lasting quality. These days, the cheapness is more marked. You can buy a packet of five basic pants from M&S for £3.

The quality, however, I would agree, seems to have gone down, and diminished across the whole clothing range. I have a habit of buying a lot of identical pants and socks at the beginning of the year to see me through until next January. They genuinely don't seem to last as well as they used to. I've been startled to find, too, how quickly some other items from M&S have worn out – the trousers from a corduroy suit moulted like a guinea pig in October. Marks & Spencer maintain that the quality of their clothes has not gone down, though remarking at the same time that they have to compete with numerous cost-cutting stores. Customers think very differently.

The problem is a much larger one than just men's underwear. Across what you might call the market for basic retail goods, the customers are dividing. One small sector is happy to wear or buy any old rubbish, produced through whatever unpleasant means – the £3 chicken, the £15 suit. Another small sector is happy to pay out a premium for luxury, often labelled goods – the £25 poulet de bresse, the £20 pair of underpants. The rest of us, in the middle, who neither want fast-unravelling pants produced at the cost of immense human oppression in Dhaka, nor want to have some stranger's name blazoned across the waistband of our underpants, are finding that our options are diminishing fast.

I would like to be able to support the expanding clothing industry in Bangladesh. But I can't believe that some of these incredible bargains, fast-disintegrating though they invariably prove to be, were produced in decent conditions by adequately paid and well-supported workers.

I certainly don't think that Marks & Spencer are particularly bad when compared to their competitors. In its new mission statement, it says that it is increasing its "overseas team of labour standards experts from seven to 23 and helping our suppliers develop six ethical model factories to identify and share best practice," which I suppose is something.

But the quality of their basic goods has clearly gone down, and you wonder about the overseas producers other than those six model factories. To get the quality of decent, wearable plain white underpants and plain, long ribbed socks which will actually stay up, these days you have to pay a little extra, merely to have some American designer's name plastered all over them. That, surely, has to be wrong.