Is Madewell Ethical or Sustainable? + Alternative Brands

April 29, 2021

Pinterest pin graphic that reads 'Is Madewell Ethical or Sustainable?' against an image of stacked jeans of different shades

Madewell is known for its wardrobe staples that are just a touch of bohemian and preppy. Its relatively steep prices, classic styles, and name make you think it’s a fairly sustainable brand—but is it?

The brand is actually owned by J. Crew, which is the first hint that Madewell isn’t as sustainable as it seems. In this post, I’ll be evaluating Madewell’s environmental measures, labor ethics, diversity, and more. I’ll also point you to some ethical alternatives at the end of the post.

Madewell’s Sustainability and Ethics

There are many “pillars” of a sustainable brand, and I’ll be going over the ones I find most important. To learn how to research and evaluate brands yourself, see my post on how to tell if a brand is greenwashing or sustainable.

Environmental Measures

Madewell does use some better materials like organic cotton and Tencel, but most of their fabrics are still not very eco-friendly, including virgin synthetics and conventional rayon/viscose (the process of creating rayon involves toxic chemicals). In their Do Well Report, they state that 44% of their cotton is organic, 4% of their synthetic fibers are recycled, and 25% of their cellulosic fibers are sustainably sourced. Madewell also uses wool, but doesn’t reveal how much is recycled or certified responsible (more about wool and leather later). 

Overview of Madewell's fabrics in its Do Well Report

Madewell is perhaps best known for its denim, and some of their jeans are made sustainably (as of 2021, 58% of their denim is Fair Trade). They have a denim line manufactured at Saitex, a factory that’s a certified B Corp, and is Blusign and Fair Trade certified. Saitex manufactures for many other big-name brands, including Target, Ralph Lauren, and Everlane (none of which are ethical brands overall, but the jeans are a start). The factory recycles 98% of its water, uses alternative energy, and air dries its jeans. The toxic byproduct is then mixed with concrete at a nearby brick factory, so it can no longer damage the environment, and helps build affordable homes.

Madewell also has a denim recycling program in partnership with Cotton’s Blue Jeans Go Green™. You can bring old, unwearable jeans of any brand to a Madewell store to be recycled into housing insulation. As a bonus, you get $20 off any new pair of jeans. I’m not the biggest fan of recycling programs at major corporations since they often encourage more consumption—when you recycle, it makes you feel like you can buy more, especially with the coupon. But, if you’re using the program mindfully and only getting rid of super ratty jeans, that seems like a sustainable option. (Jeans are very resource-intensive to make, so they should be worn as long as possible).

Madewell’s goals:

  • Fabrics: By 2025, Madewell aims to have 100% of their “key fibers” be sustainably sourced and free of virgin plastic.
  • Packaging: Currently they’re using a lot of plastic, but Madewell states that by 2025, 100% of their packaging will be “sustainably sourced and free of virgin plastic.”
  • Carbon neutrality: They aim to be carbon-neutral by 2030.

These goals are a good start, but as of now, Madewell’s products aren’t super eco-friendly. According to Good On You, there is also no evidence that they’re currently reducing water usage across the board, reducing or eliminating harmful chemicals, or reducing carbon emissions.

Madewell's goals in its Do Well Report

Labor Ethics

I’m most concerned though about Madewell’s lack of labor transparency. 58% of Madewell’s denim is Fair Trade, and they aim to hit 90% by 2025, but that’s only their denim. They have hundreds of other products. When will those workers get paid a living wage?

Madewell does have Code of Conduct for suppliers that covers fundamental freedoms, including:

  • no forced or child labor
  • no discrimination, harrassment or abuse
  • payment of at least the legal minimum wage
  • freedom of association
  • fair working hours
  • clean and safe working environment

But, only 40% of factories are in full compliance with code of conduct based on audits by a third party (the company is not revealed to us). Another 56% have minor or moderate issues, and the final 4% have serious safety or labor related issues.

Madewell's factory compliance in its Do Well Report

Madewell could improve their labor ethics by:

  1. Tracing and publishing their supply chain.
  2. Getting factory labor and safety certifications such as SA8000 or WRAP.
  3. Commit to paying a living wage (not just the legal minimum).

Social Responsibility

On a positive note, Madewell does partner with several organizations advancing social justice. In 2020, they created the Vote Collection, with 100% of proceeds going to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). They also have worked with No Kid Hungry to provide 1 million meals to kids in need.

Their Hometown Heroes Collective gives local artists the opportunity to sell their creations in Madewell stores, along with offering grants, mentorship, and networking events. Madewell pledges to have each class consist of 40% BIPOC artists.

These initiatives are great, but some may argue that it’s not enough for a multi-million dollar corporation. For instance, in 2019, Madewell states they gave 486k to their non-profit partners. Half a million sounds like a ton, but their revenue was over 600 million (so it was less than .1% of revenues). While their actual profits aren’t released, I think we can safely venture that these donations are only a tiny fraction. It’s hard to praise these campaigns when they’re not guaranteeing a living wage for their workers. At the same time, these initiatives are doing good in the community.

Size Inclusivity/Adaptive Options

Madewell has a plus size collection from XL-3XL and pants from 14W-24W. They are planning to expand to 28W by the end of 2021.While 3XL isn’t truly size-inclusive, it’s an improvement from many mainstream and sustainable brands.

Madewell does not have any adaptive clothing made for people with disabilities. This is a common issue in the fashion industry and I hope more brands will consider adding adaptive options.

Animal Welfare

Some products are made of leather, wool, and cashmere. 51% of their leather is recycled or sourced from tanneries following Leather Working Group standards. Their wool is not certified, but Madewell states they’re “in the process” of converting their products to meet the Responsible Wool Standard. They use recycled cashmere and cashmere that complies with The Good Cashmere Standard.

As of now, Madewell is not doing enough to ensure animal welfare. It would be great to see Madewell invest in plant-based leather alternatives and shift to fully recycled or responsible wool and cashmere. Even responsible wool and cashmere can be controversial, however, and one may argue that a truly ethical company would avoid using animal products at all.

Diversity

Madewell pledges to be an “actively antiracist company.” Along with learning and educating others, the company employs models of color and will partner with Jopwell, a career advancement platform for Black, Latin, and Indigenous professionals.

They do not release their diversity statistics, though to be fair, I only know of one fashion brand that does (Girlfriend Collective). I hope to see Madewell follow up with their progress for their diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Ethical Alternatives to Madewell


An example of Madewell’s style—classic silhouettes with a carefree vibe.

Madewell is ultimately one of the better mainstream fashion brands, but it has a long way to go before it could be considered sustainable or ethical. I do realize, however that Madewell is more accessible in-store and may have a better size range than many sustainable brands. I’m not trying to say you need to boycott them. If you do purchase from Madewell (or any other brand), it’s already pretty sustainable if you only buy what you truly love and make it last.

But, if you’re looking for alternatives with better environmental and ethical measures than Madewell, here are some options. None of these brands are perfect, but I believe they’re holistically better and offer more transparency.

Some of these are affiliate links, meaning that I may earn a small commission on any purchases, at no extra cost to you. This helps me continue to create educational content around sustainable fashion. Please try to shop used before buying new, if you can!

Kotn—Canadian company and certifed B corp with classic styles; invests in the Egyptian cotton farming community (masculine and feminine-presenting options)

Tradlands—Cozy knits and flowy dresses made by workers who are paid a living wage. Offers sizes up to 5XL.

Christy Dawn—ethereal dresses crafted locally in the US by workers who are paid a living wage. Offers sizes up to 3XL.

Eileen Fisher—Certified B Corp with sleek, minimalistic pieces. Offers sizes up to 3XL.

For Days—relatively affordable organic cotton streetwear with a closed loop model (masculine and feminine-presenting options)

Pact—casual and colorful clothes made from GOTS-certified and Fair Trade cotton (masculine and feminine-presenting options)

Outerknown—clothing for active lifestyles made by workers who are paid a fair wage (masculine and feminine-presenting options)

Nudie Jeans—jeans made from organic cotton by workers who are paid a living wage. Has a repair program and closed-loop collection.

Boyish—vintage-inspired jeans that are climate-neutral, closed-loop, and made by fairly-paid workers. 

ABLE—clothing and jewelry crafted by a team that’s 95% women. Publishes their lowest wages, as their mission is to empower women as a solution to end poverty.

See my ethical and sustainable brand directory for more recommendations.


 

If you’ve purchased from Madewell before, or have worked there, let us know about your experience! Quality and treatment of retail workers are also important factors in determining a brand’s sustainability and ethics.

You may also like these posts:

Is Everlane Actually Ethical?
Common Misconceptions About Sustainable Fashion
Why “Made in USA” Clothing Isn’t Always Ethical

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I'm Lily, and I run races and go places (& blog about it). I also try to advocate for the planet & its people.
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