Back view of woman wearing outfit resembling the Madewell brand walking down a road on an overcast day.
January 19, 2024
 in 
Slow Fashion

Is Madewell Sustainable?

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here is a lot to recommend Madewell. Not only does it have a cult following for its denim, but it boasts better size-inclusivity than most and a commitment to sustainability that includes a pre-loved market and Fair Trade certification.

But is Madewell as ethical and sustainable as it seems? In this article, we’ll look at everything from who owns Madewell to the gaps in their sustainability claims. We’ll also share seven Madewell alternatives that are pushing the envelope on eco-friendly and sustainable fashion.

Table of  Contents

The Brand’s History (What Company Owns Madewell Now)

Madewell has two distinct eras. The first is marked by Julius Kivowitz, a Russian immigrant with an interesting past, who founded the company in 1937 to sell bib overalls and jeans to New England fishing and factory workers. Nowadays, the brand is known for simple, stylish women’s and menswear with customers who work in offices, rather than factories.

This second era at Madewell began in 2004 when Mickey Drexler, a legend at J.Crew, acquired the brand’s logo and trademark for the company. To this day, J.Crew is still the company that owns Madewell. The heritage, family brand that once based its production solely out of the United States has since morphed into something quite different under the giant retailer.

Myth busting Madewell’s Ethics and Sustainability Practices

The current iteration of the brand often places sustainability at the center of its marketing with the Madewell mission statement asserting that they “believe in doing better for our planet and its people”.

Let’s take a closer look to see if the Madewell ethics match up with their actions:

1. Sustainable Materials

When it comes to fabrics and materials, is Madewell legit? In some ways, yes. Here are 5 quick facts on sustainable materials at Madewell taken from their 2022 “Do Well” report:

  • More than half the cotton (the brand’s dominant material) used in 2022 was sustainably sourced.
  • 70% of the leather was sustainable too.
  • Madewell has partnered with NATIVA™ x Insuluxe to use fully traceable wool for a selection of products.
  • 84% of the nylon in their swimwear is recycled.
  • They’re a big investor in regenerative cotton – a farming approach that aims to preserve long-term soil health and limit the need for agrochemicals.

It is worth cautioning, however, that this information hasn’t been verified by a third party. Their collaborations on better wool use and sustainable cotton certifications hold more validity, but we’d love to see even more transparency from Madewell in the future. 

2. Energy and Water Usage

Madewell’s commitment to the use of more sustainable cotton has meant that in the production of their most-used fabric at least, they have been involved in water-saving efforts. In terms of what their actual clothing manufacturing processes use in terms of water and energy, and if there are goals to reduce it, is less clear.

3. Is Madewell Made in the USA?

In its early days, everything at Madewell was produced in the USA but not for sustainability reasons. It was a way to cut costs. Many do that now by relying on factories in developing nations instead where labor is usually cheaper.

To answer the question “Where is Madewell made?”, we’d have to point to Vietnam, Guatemala, Cambodia, and more. Some items are still made in the USA, but most are split over 5 other countries to which Madewell has applied varying degrees of transparency in terms of which factories they use, external audits of working conditions, etc. 

4. Circular Fashion

One of the biggest boosts to Madewell’s sustainability efforts has been its effective clothing recycling and pre-loved sales. More than 1.6 million garments have been resold or responsibly recycled through Madewell’s trade-in program – a major win for circular fashion.

5. Fairtrade vs Fair Trade

Fairtrade (one word) is an externally audited, global system that places rigorous economic, social, and environmental standards on the brands it certifies. Madewell is not Fairtrade certified. It is Fair Trade Certified™ – a US branch of the original organization that split off in 2012.

Unlike Fairtrade,  Fair Trade isn’t part of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) or externally audited. What it does still signify though is that Madewell has to meet important standards for labor safety and wellbeing, as well as sustainability.

6. Is Madewell Sustainable: The Verdict

Yes and no. We know that’s not the answer you were probably looking for, but “sustainable” isn’t a legally protected word and thus can be used far more widely than most would like. 

Overall Pros and Cons of Madewell’s Sustainability

Pros:

  • Use of traceable leather and wool, as well as the increased use of sustainably sourced materials.
  • Water saving through the “Better Cotton” program and regenerative agriculture.
  • Fair Trade Certified™ which relates to worker empowerment, sustainable development goals, etc.
  • Effective circular fashion initiatives through clothing recycling and a pre-loved market.

Cons:

  • Still much to be improved upon when it comes to the sourcing and use of synthetic materials.
  • Unclear if there are energy and water reduction programs for their factories, offices, etc.
  • Limited transparency on the locations and conditions of overseas Madewell factories.

7 Madewell Alternatives and Their Sustainability Stats

If you’re looking for the same easy, cool style of Madewell but perhaps with improved eco and sustainability measures, look no further. Here are 7 of the best Madewell alternatives that ship to the US:

1. Tradlands

Women modeling clothing by Madewell alternative brand called Tradlands.

Tradlands has received praise for everything from its shirts that “eliminate boob gap” (from NY Mag) to its sustainability practices.

Sizing: XXS – 4X

Product Range: Women’s clothing and accessories.

Sustainability Stats:

  • Small batch production.
  • Use of deadstock fabrics for some pieces.
  • Biodegradable shipping packaging.

2. Sézane

Woman modeling lilac outfit by the brand Sezane.

This cool French-born brand is one of Madewell’s direct competitors and for good reason. The clothes are high-quality and ethically produced.

Sizing: UK 6 – 18/ XS – XXL

Product Range: Men’s and Womenswear, and accessories.

Sustainability Stats:

  • Certified B Corp.
  • ¾ of the materials used are eco-friendly, eg. 90% of cotton is organic.
  • Various certifications regarding their organic textiles and the sustainable and traceable sourcing of materials.
  • Sustainable shipping materials.
  • All permanent Sézane boutiques are powered by renewable energy.
  • Largely traceable supply chain.

3. Eileen Fisher

Woman sitting on wooden chair wearing clothing by sustainable clothing brand: Eileen Fischer.

Eileen Fisher has long cemented itself as a fashion brand that women can go to for easy basics that last, and have, as the brand itself says, “sustainability woven in”.

Sizing: S–XXXL

Product Range: Women’s clothing and accessories.

Sustainability Stats:

  • Certified B Corp.
  • Various programs to create a circular fashion process.
  • One of the first clothing brands to use organic textiles in a big way.
  • Energy efficiency measures for offices and factories.

4. Yes Friends.

Model wearing hat and sweater by  a sustainable alternative clothing brand to Madewell known as Yes Friends..

Yes Friends. started with one mission: make a sustainable T-shirt that costs the same as a pint of beer at a UK pub. Now they’re getting praise from publications such as The Guardian for their well-priced, sustainable basics. 

Sizing: 3S – 4XL

Product Range: Women’s, men’s, and kid’s clothing.

Sustainability Stats:

  • All cotton used is organic and Fairtrade. 
  • Their primary factory in India is solar-powered and recycles its water.
  • Most dyes are GOTS-certified which means fewer chemicals.
  • Various certifications regarding their fair treatment of workers, including WRAP (Worldwide Responsible Apparel Coalition).

5. Ética

Woman modeling sweater and jeans by the sustainable clothing brand Etica.

Ética has employed cutting-edge technology and beautiful design work to create clothing that is as stylish as they are sustainable. Madewell jeans might have its fans, but few are making denim as ethically as this brand.

Sizing: 24 – 32

Product Range: Women’s clothing (mainly jeans and basics).

Sustainability Stats:

  • Vegan.
  • Biodegradable packaging.
  • Uses recycled and 70% organic cotton.
  • Reduced use of chemicals and water in denim production.
  • WRAP-certified and recognized by the UN Global Compact for environmental and social practices.

6. Warp + Weft

Side profile of man modelling T-shit and jeans by eco-friendly clothing brand known as Wrap + Weft.

Here’s another sustainable alternative to your favorite Madewell jeans, and with inclusive sizing to boot …

Sizing: Men’s and Women’s denim.

Product Range: 00 – 24

Sustainability Stats:

  • Recycles 98% of the water used to produce their jeans.
  • Reduced chemicals in dying.
  • Factory relies on solar and self-generated power.

7. Girlfriend Collective

A group of woman jogging outdoors while wearing Girlfriend Collective sustainable Athletic wear.

We know that many are fans of Madewell for their activewear, but Girlfriend Collective offers gorgeous styles with far more reliance on recycled materials. For even more eco-friendly activewear options, click here.

Sizing: XXS–6XL

Product Range: Women’s activewear.

Sustainability Stats:

  • Uses recycled materials for its fabrics.
  • 100% recycled packaging.
  • WRAP certification and SAI (Social Accountability International).
  • Eco-friendly dyes.

Madewell Sustainability: Frequently Asked Questions

Is Madewell a fast fashion brand? 

Yes, Madewell is a fast fashion brand. They market and sell huge volumes of trend-driven clothes.

Who is Madewell made by? 

Madewell is made and owned by J.Crew.

What material does Madewell use? 

Madewell mainly uses sustainably sourced cotton but also uses leather, nylon, wool, etc.

Is Madewell non-toxic? 

No, Madewell does not yet meet non-toxic standards.

What is the difference between J. Crew and Madewell? 

The difference between J.Crew and Madewell is that the latter has a younger, more fashion-forward focus. Otherwise, they fall under the same company and general practices.

Well, What Now?

According to the EPA, the biggest contributor to textile waste in the USA is discarded clothes. It’s a reminder that the most significant thing you can do for the planet is to buy items that won’t end up in landfills.

Make use of recycling programs like Madewell’s where you can. Try to support brands like Ética that are taking sustainability further, or seek out brands that practice made-to-order, but most importantly: shop mindfully and donate or sell rather than throw away, wherever possible. That’s how we shift fashion’s impact and start to make the planet well again.