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River Island Jumps on the Poverty Porn Bandwagon with Ridiculous T-Shirt

13/03/2014 14:04 GMT | Updated 12/05/2014 10:59 BST

River Island has removed a t-shirt from its website after heavy criticism on social media for the crass and insensitive slogan it bore. However, their "Homeless - New York City" t-shirt, which features a picture of a tent and is described by the store as "a quirky talking point," remains on sale in at least one major outlet as of March 11th 2014. A number of people are already calling for a boycott and demanding River Island donate to a homeless charity by way of an apology.

At first glance, this may just seem like a case of poor artistic judgement, something for River Island to laugh about in a month's time, once the chatter dies down. But it actually belies a much deeper societal problem; it's becoming OK to laugh at and belittle people in crisis.

Manchester-based photographer Air Adam, who was among the first to draw attention to the offending t-shirt on Twitter, said: "Items like this t-shirt don't magically appear in shops - after the design was done, there would be multiple levels of approval needed before it appeared in stores, and the fact that at no stage did anyone think it inappropriate and block it speaks volumes. At a minimum, River Island should remove it from sale, publicly apologise and make a decent contribution to at least one charity helping the homeless."

"Losing your home must be one of the worst experiences anyone could ever go through, and it's absolutely nothing to joke about, especially at a time like this when homeless numbers are rising and many people who still have homes are short of food."

As well as being insensitive, the t-shirt follows a trend - magnified by the Channel 4 documentary Benefits Street - poverty porn at its ugly worst - where the reality of genuine hardship is overlooked and the myth of poverty is used as a sales tool. There's nothing liberating or aspirational here. Whether it's a TV show, governmental "striver/skiver" rhetoric, or a t-shirt that's for sale; presenting poverty as a lifestyle choice is low.

We've been conditioned to judge someone's value to society based on their tax contribution. While that's something we'd come to expect from barrel-scraping TV production companies, it boggles the mind when fashion retailers get in on the game.

High street fashion has always been great at being bland in a comforting, parent-friendly way. That's the point of it. Fictional American universities, generic sports teams, and punk bands that thrived three generations ago; these are the sort of things that should be on teenagers' t-shirts.

So when fashion retailers try to elevate off-the-shelf edginess to silly new levels, you suddenly remember that it's idiotic adults who are in charge.

River Island aren't the first to mess up with a t-shirt. Jamie Oliver had to apologise in 2003 for wearing a Tamil Tigers t-shirt after it was pointed out that they weren't an obscure sports team. Amazon shut down one of its retailers after they listed for sale a t-shirt that trivialised rape, although that particular retailer tried to blame a faulty algorithm for the slogan. As ridiculous as it sounds, the words on your t-shirt do have an influence on those around you.

But there's something uniquely disquieting about this effort from River Island. You can almost hear the conversation that lead to its creation. As if they started with "Lol Poverty" and worked their way down to "Homeless - New York City." It's got the glamour of the Big Apple with the gritty authenticity of being homeless, afterall.

Homeless people in the UK have an average life expectancy of 47. Homeless women die on average at 43. Thankfully, River Island's choice to commoditise and re-package this sort of tragedy into a quirky fashion statement is not going down well.

Jonny Challenger, managing director of fashion comparison website Stylecompare.co.uk said: "It's thoughtless of River Island to target a group of people down on their luck. The t-shirt has a picture of a tent on it. It's not even funny. Hopefully the people that buy it and wear it will get ridiculed by their friends."

River Island have informally apologised via social media for any offence and are "investigating internally."