Ethical Brands That Are Better Than Madewell
While Madewell has made vast improvements to their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) document and their supply chain, the majority of their products do not strictly adhere to ethical or sustainable standards.
This list is updated seasonally and contains affiliate links
One exception is their collection of fair trade certified denim.
I’ve compiled this list to help you fill out your wardrobe with more ethical options. For more information on Madewell’s standards, scroll all the way to the bottom of this post.
1 | Tradlands
Responsibly made, menswear-inspired classics for women like button downs, work jackets, and t-shirts. Sizes XXS-4X.
2 | Sezane
Sezane produces sustainable and traceable clothing, shoes, accessories, and more (including denim) with an eye toward quality and classic-meets-modern design. Sizes 0-16.
3 | Quince
Quince offers luxury basics at lower prices thanks to their manufacturer-to-consumer model. Shop natural fiber clothing and accessories with ethical labor practices. Sizes XS-XL.
5 | Tonle
Tonle is a zero waste clothing brand that does amazing things with factory remnants. Shop screenprinted and woven clothing with casual, cool vibes. Sizes XS-3XL.
6 | Everlane
Though not the most sustainable or ethical of the bunch, Everlane has introduced a number of promising initiatives, including using nontoxic dyes, low water practices, and organic and recycled materials. Sizes XXS-XL.
7 | Taylor Tall
Ethically and sustainably made clothing created with tall women in mind, Taylor Tall offers a capsule collection of garments that find a balance between work and play. Sizes 4-18.
8 | Alice Alexander
Alice Alexander is a size-inclusive, woman-owned ethical and sustainable brand carrying trend-conscious, high quality clothing for a variety of occasions and style preferences. Sizes 0-30.
9 | Synergy Organic Clothing
Cotton spandex separates with laid-back, feminine silhouettes, Synergy uses organic fabrics and produces in a fair trade facility. XS-XL.
10 | Levi’s Waterless
Madewell is best known for their denim, but many of 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. Sizes 23-32″ and Plus 14-26.
11 | Laude the Label
With lots of matching separates made with effortlessly chic, natural fibers, Laude the Label is all about femme empowerment. They work with primarily women makers who are pad a fair wage. Sizes XS-XXL.
13 | Fortress Shoes
Formerly Fortress of Inca, Fortress Shoes makes a luxurious collection of leather slides, boots, sandals and more with ethical labor practices.
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.
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 in this post. You can also:
Shop Madewell fair trade denim here.
More from the Ethical Alternatives series here.
Shop Ethical Alternatives to J. Crew.
Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.
Monday 26th of October 2020
Appreciate your transparency and honesty, and the realistic alternatives listed!
Sunday 1st of November 2020
Elizia Adeline Artis
Monday 20th of July 2020
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.
Monday 20th of July 2020
Thank you!! I'm going to change that now.
Sunday 14th of June 2020
“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?
Sunday 14th of June 2020
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.