15 Ethical Brands That Are Better Than Madewell

Madewell sounds ethical, but is it? While they've made significant improvements recently, it remains to be seen how committed they'll be to ethics and sustainability.
The Merly Jacket by ABLE | This post contains affiliate links

Is Madewell Ethical?

When I initially published this post in 2017, Madewell had no Corporate Social Responsibility statement to speak of, so I used J. Crew Group’s then-vague documentation of ethical criteria and factory guidelines.

A reader helpfully pointed out that this is no longer the case.

Madewell’s website now includes several documents outlining their sustainability, labor, and auditing standards. This indicates for me that,

  • Customer comments over the years have been an effective means to get Madewell to be more transparent about their supply chain.
  • Madewell is aware of the major pressure points where exploitation is likely to occur throughout the supply chain.

What’s more, they are a member of two corporate sustainability initiatives, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) and European-based Better Work, which is a partner of the UN’s International Labor Organization.

Large corporate agencies like BSR are a move in the right direction, because they work on incremental reform within preexisting multi-national giants like Coca-Cola, but they’re not necessarily an indicator that a company has met a baseline standard of what we might find “ethical.” That being said, I attended a conference where a member of Better Work spoke, and was very impressed with the clarity of their work.

I believe incremental change is good, especially when corporate leaders are sincerely invested in long term change and not just paying lip service to customers. I worry, however, that in many cases, brand involvement with such agencies can serve as a shield from the prying eyes of customers sincerely looking for answers.

As evidenced by Madewell’s fairly recent plunge into fair trade denim – and the fact that J. Crew group paid for factory certification – and their new “Do Well” sustainable textiles shop, Madewell is headed in the right direction. It remains to be seen what their game plan is for overhauling all components of their supply chain and standards across product.

There is still a lack of clarity around sourcing, especially because Madewell undoubtedly utilizes, at a minimum, dozens of factories around the world. Even with amazing CSR standards, it is very hard to trace supply chains. J. Crew Group has also not been forthright about whether they are paying factories for fulfilled orders in light of their recent bankruptcy announcement and the major slowdown caused by Covid-19.

A gap remains between what looks to be Madewell’s earnest efforts to improve and the fact of their murky history and multi-national supply chain.

For now, I rate them close to Everlane: improvements in textiles, some transparency, and good intentions.

If you’re a super fan of Madewell, this post is not intended to make you stop shopping there. Rather, it starts a discussion around what your standards are. I recommend telling Madewell you’d like more transparency, and explicitly shopping from their sustainable and fair trade lines.

If that doesn’t work for you, there are lots of other options, below. You can also:

Shop Madewell fair trade denim here.

11 ethical alternatives to madewell stylewise-blog.com

Levi’s Waterless | Everlane | Ace & Jig

Contains affiliate links

11 Ethical Brands That Are Better Than Madewell

CLOTHING

1 | Levi’s Waterless

Madewell is best known for their denim, but their denim manufacturing processes are opaque. Levi’s produces a lot of their denim products with very low water waste and other responsible practices. You can still get that American heritage look without the wasteful manufacturing processes.

Featured item. SHOP HERE

2 | Entireword

With audited factories and a preference for sustainable materials, Entireworld offers some of that tomboy Americana aesthetic, with striped tees, rib knits, and cozy sweatshirts, all in unexpected colors.

SHOP HERE

3 | Made Trade

Made Trade is a curated marketplace for ethical fashion and home goods. The aesthetic has a kind of clean clarity I associate with Madewell and they carry a good range of items, including some plus sizes.

SHOP HERE

4 | Tonle

Tonle is a zero waste clothing brand that does amazing things with factory remnants. Shop screenprinted and woven clothing with casual, cool vibes.

SHOP HERE

5 | Only Child

Made in California, Only Child captures the California-cool aesthetic in wide leg pants, cropped blouses, and more, most made out of high quality linen.

SHOP HERE

 Made Trade
Made Trade
11 ethical alternatives to madewell stylewise-blog.com

Liz Alig | MATTER Prints

6 | Liz Alig

Mentioned here because their new recycled denim line totally captures Madewell’s 2018 look, with casual stripes and streamlined, vintage inspired looks.

Featured item. SHOP HERE

7 | Ace & Jig

With an emphasis on hand loomed, artisan fabric, Ace & Jig is undoubtedly an inspiration for Madewell’s own line. In fact, Madewell partnered with them on a custom textile. The price point is higher, but the pieces are true works of art.

Featured item. SHOP HERE

8 | Synergy Organic Clothing

Cotton spandex separates with laid-back, feminine silhouettes, Synergy uses organic fabrics and produces in a fair trade facility.

SHOP HERE

9 | MATTER Prints

While MATTER may be a little out there compared to Madewell, some of their separates and jumpsuits fall right in line with the overall aesthetic, plus they’re made ethically using traditional artisan textile designs and techniques.

Featured item. SHOP HERE

10 | ABLE

Made fairly with full employee wage transparency (!), ABLE’s entire line of clothing, shoes, and bags closely aligns with the Madewell aesthetic.

SHOP HERE

11 | Tradlands

Responsibly made, menswear-inspired classics for women like button downs, work jackets, and t-shirts.

SHOP HERE

11 ethical alternatives to madewell stylewise-blog.com

Everlane | Nisolo

SHOES

12 | Nisolo

A minimalist blogger favorite, Nisolo makes mules, sandals, huaraches, and boots with a fashion-forward meets timeless aesthetic.

Featured item. SHOP HERE

13 | Fortress of Inca

A luxurious collection of leather slides, boots, sandals and more made ethically in South America.

SHOP HERE

14 | Po-Zu

European made leather AND VEGAN shoes with a vintage-meets-modern aesthetic

SHOP HERE


VINTAGE

15 | Etsy

Last but not least, don’t forget the vintage option! So much of Madewell’s designs, colors, and patterns have been pulled directly from vintage pieces. Their look as of late is very early 80s with a dash of the 70s mixed in. Look for specific products through an etsy search.

SHOP HERE

More from the Ethical Alternatives series here.

4 comments

  1. Hello! Looks like the title link for the Entireworld section goes to Everlane while the smaller “shop now” bit/ly goes to Entireworld’s site.

  2. “Despite any claims of the sort” Madewell has outlined a very transparent social responsibility section of their website about how they source their materials. What evidence do you have contradicting what’s in their social responsibility section?

    1. Thanks for your comment. When I wrote the main body of text in 2017, Madewell didn’t have its own corporate social responsibility page, so I had to use J. Crew Group’s instead. In reading the CSR statements on Madewell’s site now, however, I see two things worth noting: 1. they do mention specific trouble spots in the global supply chain which show they are paying attention not only to potential areas of exploitation but have also responded to consumer questions, 2. despite this, their CSR statement is standard issue.

      The main trouble spot for me is how we as consumers can know that our sense of what counts as ethical is being upheld – and this is true across CSR statements and companies – because a lot of exploitation is hidden underneath what could be discovered during a factory audit. They also say that they ask their suppliers to do the work of supply chain tracing, which unfortunately does not mean much in countries where labor laws are nearly nonexistent and factory owners simply don’t have reliable data around materials sourcing (it is very hard to do this kind of work without an external process). What would be needed would be either a more robust description of how audits and data research are undertaken or access to their external auditing sources with descriptions of clear processes. BUT, I am also thrilled that they’re a member of Better Work. I heard one of their representative speak at a conference and was really impressed with their mission.

      All that to say, I have been following Madewell as they add more sustainable and fair trade collections to their offerings, and I’m really excited about what that means for the future of sustainable and ethical fashion. At this point, I would put them and Everlane on nearly an even playing field (I recently downgraded Everlane and took them off this list due to issues regarding transparency and domestic labor issues). I will update the post to reflect the positive direction they’re heading in (as soon as I finish breakfast!).

      Thanks again, and let me know if you have any follow up questions.

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