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:
Levi’s Waterless | Everlane | Ace & Jig
Contains affiliate links
11 Ethical Brands That Are Better Than Madewell
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cotton spandex separates with laid-back, feminine silhouettes, Synergy uses organic fabrics and produces in a fair trade facility.
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.
10 | ABLE
Made fairly with full employee wage transparency (!), ABLE’s entire line of clothing, shoes, and bags closely aligns with the Madewell aesthetic.
11 | Tradlands
Responsibly made, menswear-inspired classics for women like button downs, work jackets, and t-shirts.
Everlane | Nisolo
12 | Nisolo
A minimalist blogger favorite, Nisolo makes mules, sandals, huaraches, and boots with a fashion-forward meets timeless aesthetic.
13 | Fortress of Inca
A luxurious collection of leather slides, boots, sandals and more made ethically in South America.
14 | Po-Zu
European made leather AND VEGAN shoes with a vintage-meets-modern aesthetic
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.