Madewell is one of the United States’ most successful and favorite fashion brands. Famous for its well-made denim and preppy wardrobe staples with a bohemian touch, the fashion retailer has become a shopping spot for fashion-conscious peeps across the globe. Plus, its classic styles, relatively steep prices, and name would make you think it’s a sustainable and ethical brand. But is Madewell fast fashion?
Madewell is indeed a fast fashion brand. The company has many suppliers to churn out volumes of clothing at lightning speed, houses a mountain of trendy styles, and often prices its products at reasonable rates. This business model is similar to that of traditional fast fashion brands. Moreover, the brand is nestled under fast fashion giant J.Crew, which is the first hint that it’s not as sustainable as it seems.
Delve into this article to discover the truth behind Madewell’s labor ethics, environmental impact, and more. Let’s get started.
What Is Madewell?
Madewell is a leading American apparel company renowned for its stylish and contemporary on-trend fashion offerings. It was founded in 1937 by a family of Russian immigrants in Massachusetts. Madewell started out as a workwear company, producing durable clothes such as bib overalls and non-patterned cardigans for American workers.
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Madewell was later acquired by J.Crew Group Inc. in 2004 and has experienced rebranding and expansion. It has shifted its focus towards creating timeless pieces for young and fashion-conscious consumers. Its comprehensive collection includes dresses, tops, outerwear, bags, jewelry, and shoes. But, the brand’s DNA is mainly rooted in making its high-quality signature pieces of denim.
The fashion retailer is headquartered in New York and has about 155 physical stores in the United States. It also has an active e-commerce platform for shoppers worldwide. As millennials continue to flock to Madewell, the brand focuses on connecting with Gen Z through collaborations with edgy influencers and TikTok campaigns.
As part of J.Crew Group, Madewell’s suppliers are spread globally, including China, the US, Vietnam, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Cambodia. The company ships apparel to over 100 countries, and the online orders are shipped either from its retail outlets or distribution centers, depending on the product’s availability and the customer’s location.
Is Madewell Fast Fashion?
Yes, Madewell is a fast fashion brand, producing a large volume of clothing with frequent turnover and little transparency on its global supply chain. However, Madewell has some initiatives like Fair Trade Certified products and sustainable products crafted from eco-friendly materials, but this only represents a small portion of its extensive product line. Plus, there’s no evidence the company pays a decent living wage to all its workers.
Moreover, J. Crew, a fast-fashion giant, owns Madewell, which raises concerns about its overall commitment to sustainable and ethical operations. The fashion retailer also positions its pricing strategy at a mid-range segment, providing fine products priced slightly higher than most fast-fashion brands like Forever 21, Guess, and Fashion Nova but more affordable than luxury labels like All Saints.
Is Madewell Ethical?
Madewell has made significant progress in improving its ethical practices. Still, there is a huge room for improvement.
a) Social Responsibility
As part of the company’s Social Responsibility Approach, Madewell has partnered with Better Work, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), and Fair Factories Clearinghouse (FFC), which are dedicated to enhancing factory working conditions globally.
Madewell partners with several social justice organizations advancing social justice. In 2020, the company launched the Vote Collection, donating 100% of its proceeds to ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). Madewell also partnered with No Kid Hungry to contribute 1 million meals to needy children.
Moreover, the company’s Hometown Heroes collection supports local artists, giving them opportunities to sell their creations in its stores, offering them grants, networking events, and mentorship. The brand also aims to have 40% BIPOC artists in each class.
b) Labor Ethics
Madewell has a Vendor’s Code of Conduct in agreement with the International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions and other global labor rights. This code of ethics mandates compliance from its supply chain to follow the guidelines, ensuring fair working hours, safe workplaces, and fair wages. Also, its partner factories are third-party audited regularly.
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Moreover, about 50% of Madewell’s denim is Fair Trade Certified in the final stage of production, and it aims to source 90% of its denim from certified factories by 2025. But while the fair trade denim details are commendable, what about other items in its product line? What about its supply chain transparency?
Madewell received only an 11-20% score on the Fashion Transparency Index, which is not good. While it publishes some information about its supplier audits and policies, it doesn’t share its suppliers’ list or information about gender equality, forced labor, or freedom of association. Therefore, there’s no guarantee that every worker receives the minimum living wage and is treated ethically.
According to their Do Well Report, based on third-party audits, only 40% of Madewell’s factories fully comply with its code of conduct, 56% have minor or moderate issues, and 4% have severe labor or safety concerns.
However, the company sources most of its merchandise from Asian countries, including China, Vietnam, and Cambodia, where labor laws are lax and cheap labor is easily available. Therefore, this multi-million company needs to go the extra mile to improve its labor ethics by observing Fair Labor standards, tracing and publishing its supply chain, and being humane to its garment workers.
c) Does Madewell Use Child Labor
Madewell’s formal Vendor’s Code of Conduct states that it has a zero-tolerance policy for forced or child labor. It has also stopped sourcing cotton from Uzbekistan, where child labor in cotton production is prevalent. And Madewell hasn’t been in any news with allegations of using child labor. However, with many of its factories located in developing nations, and not all of them are Fair Trade Certified, there is no telling if they are employing minors.
d) Madewell’s Animal Welfare Policies
Madewell has a formal animal welfare policy in correspondence with the principles of the Five Freedoms, including the freedom to express their natural behaviors, freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from pain, injury, or disease, freedom from discomfort, and freedom from fear and distress.
This American retailer doesn’t use controversial animal-derived textiles such as fur, down, angora, or exotic animal skin in its merchandise. However, it uses materials like leather, wool, and exotic animal hair and does not trace them from the first stage of production. Nonetheless, Madewell pledges to source these materials from responsible and certified farms in the future.
How Sustainable is Madewell?
Madewell has made impressive progress in the sphere of environmental impact. But, as a multinational fashion brand with numerous operations, it needs to do better to protect the planet. Madewell aims to sustainably source 100% of its key fibers and free of virgin plastic by 2025. The company also plans to be carbon neutral by 2030. But how sustainable is it at the moment?
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Madewell uses a good proportion of sustainable fabrics, including organic and recycled materials. According to their Do Well Report, 53% of their organic cotton is certified by the Organic Content Standard and Global Organic Textile Standards, and 35% of their polyester and 27% of their nylon are sustainably sourced. The fashion brand also introduced a collection crafted from regenerative organic certified recycled cotton in early 2023.
However, Madewell still uses unsustainable fabrics like virgin nylon, virgin polyester, viscose, rayon, acetate, and conventional cotton. It also uses wool but does not disclose how much is certified responsible or recycled.
Madewell is famous for its denim line. About 50% of its jeans are Fair Trade certified and manufactured in Saitex, a B Corporation denim-production factory in Vietnam. The jeans are made with Bluesign-approved ISKO fabric, a mark of sustainable production.
It’s worth noting that the denim production process requires significant water usage, especially in indigo dye discharge maintenance and denim laundries. But Saitex recycles 98% of its water and mixes its toxic byproduct with concrete at a neighboring brick factory. Madewell has also pledged to invest in water stewardship to address these challenges and promote responsible water management. However, there’re no actual reports to back this claim.
Madewell has teamed up with thredUP to sell more of its secondhand apparel responsibly. Through the secondhand fashion program, Madewell has reduced its used jeans ending up in landfills. Additionally, its website has a Preloved page where customers can buy gently-used Madewell clothes at discounted prices. The company also hosts clothing swaps in its headquarters and Repair Programs in its stores to keep clothing in circulation.
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Furthermore, Madewell has a denim recycling program in partnership with Cotton’s Blue Jeans Go Green™. You can bring your preloved jeans from any brand to any Madewell store to be recycled into housing insulation for communities in need. As a bonus, you’ll get $20 off any new pair of jeans.
These sustainability achievements and initiatives are impressive but not good enough. There’s no evidence of Madewell reducing its carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions, and it has taken no significant action to eliminate or reduce hazardous chemicals from its products. The company also doesn’t seem to implement any water usage reduction initiatives.
This lack of transparency leads to greenwashing because the brand doesn’t share exact data on its operations’ environmental impact in its Impact Report.
Ethical Alternatives to Madewell
Madewell is ultimately one of the best mainstream fashion brands, but it has a long way to go to be considered an ethical or sustainable brand. No matter your style, there is a sustainable fashion brand for everyone. Here are some sustainable and ethical brands alternative to Madewell
- MUD Jeans
- For Days
- Neu Nomads
- Yes And
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As a typical fast fashion brand nestled under J. Crew’s wing, Madewell has taken significant strides to counteract the negative impacts of the fashion industry. But sustainability goes beyond a few initiatives. The brand lacks transparency in its supply chain and is yet to address workers’ living wage issues significantly. So while Madewell’s ethics seem rooted in good intentions, they lack integrity.
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