How Ethical Is Madewell? All You Need to Know

How Ethical Is Madewell? All You Need to Know

Dennis Kamprad

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Many have been critical of Madewell over the last decade. But its social responsibility page claims those at Madewell “strive to do well in the world,” and “quality and integrity are of key importance” in its corporate governance. With the injustices of the world having brighter spotlights shone upon them, business transparency has become a critical issue for many consumers who wish to support ethical companies, so we had to ask: How ethical is Madewell?

Madewell has shown a commitment to ethical and sustainable practices in recent years. However, it lacks supply-chain transparency and has yet to make an earnest effort to address all workers’ living wage issues. Overall, Madewell’s ethics appear to be rooted in good intentions but lack integrity.

We hope that Madewell has taken to public pressure merely to assure its customers that its practices are ethical and sustainable, not to fool its customers into thinking such. But time will tell. Meanwhile, the mystery is yours to decipher, and we hope this article gives you a different perspective on ethics to consider.

Ethics in the Modern World

We live in a time where social media and corporate platforming have worked in conjunction to turn all of us into a society that judges a book by its cover. 

You, and your friends, your family, your co-workers, your company, your neighbor’s cat–anyone with access to the internet–can list every group with whom you associate and state your declared ambitions–“I’ve been involved with for years to help combat the xyz issue in other countries!”–but strangers aren’t going to know the real you just by reading that.

We tend to forget the vastly-public image that social media allows us was nowhere near the norm of how advertising was communicated and how company image was once perceived. Public image was built with time–and character was defined in the work you did, the product you made, the action you took–and its result. And to be successful, this often required genuine integrity.

We say all this because it plays into our overall summation of Madewell as a company today, as you will soon see.

Many entrepreneurs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (anything pre-Industrial Revolution) were immigrants, and all of them had their version of the American Dream. For many of them, their driving-passion was nothing more than financial success–a characteristic one expects to find in a successful business person. 

The original founder of Madewell was one example of the American Dream

The History of Madewell: A Story of Honest, Integrity-Borne Ethics

The story and information were found in a 2014 Buzzfeed feature, “Something Borrowed, Something Blue,” written by the great-grandson of the original founder of Madewell. While this article reads a bit like a novel with its narrator-descriptions of people and places, it evokes an empathetic connection that reminds you that behind the logo of every brand lies the faces and lives of real human beings. 

Ultimately, this article served as a “missing link” in Madewell’s history and became the framework for our response to the company’s ethical practices. The author concluded that the Madewell company his family owned was the same as the Madewell brand we all know today in that both stand for how business is done in its own time. (And that official brand histories tend to be preserved behind rose-colored glass.)

The difference we can see is that the original company made trendy necessities of luxurious quality and manufacturing that stood the test of time; today’s brand aims to manufacture quality-luxury clothes with a style that outstands the time of trends (or at least five years). 

Furthermore, today’s Madewell bases its ethics and principles on an inverted version of the original founder’s beliefs–which were rooted in a time where integrity ruled more prevalently than it does today.

The Madewell of Yore

Born circa 1889, Julius Kivowitz (not his original surname) and his fiancé fled the Russian Empire during a heightened time of Jewish persecution. And escaped to America. He first opened a grocery store before making enough to switch into textiles, which became the founding of Madewell. The trademark was filed in 1936, and the first factory officially opened in 1937.

His company name said everything you needed to know about his products: they were made well. He and his “stitchers” made hardy work clothes: jeans, dungarees (though not as what you think of today), and bib-overalls.  

But it seems as though Julius understood what the average person wanted and what made a company successful: a quality product at an affordable price. Indeed, this still holds today as a prominent ideal for consumers. And his simple idea of “obtainable-luxury” has proven to be quite the successful slogan for countless brands throughout the years.

The company never claimed to be a designer in any way. They would simply pay attention to the fashion trend at the time and make a “knock-off” version of their own, except it was manufactured to meet Madewell’s trademark high-standards in quality.

The business was a family operation. Julius’ son, Haskell, began and oversaw the company’s first expansions by branching out into other clothes in the 1960s. 

Your Madewell of Today

The family-run company ultimately succumbed to its expansions, as they proved unsustainable in the face of conglomerate capitalism that started to take control, and they shut down all of their factories by the mid-’80s.

Fast forward to 2003, shortly before his death, Haskell signed off the rights to the Madewell trademark and logo (and only to the trademark and logo) to a man named David Mullen and his partner Millard Drexler, who had recently become the new CEO of J.Crew Group Inc. 

(The remaining descendants of Julius alive today no longer have any rights or stakes in the company.)

The J.Crew sister company known as Madewell launched in 2006 as a maker of “real, honest women’s clothes” for young, trendy consumers. Despite J.Crew’s failings, their “new” brand managed to gain ground with the help of their “founding principles” and company back-story. Still, in 2011 the company was purchased by Leonard Green & Partners LP and TPG Capital

Together, the brands later expanded to offer home goods as well. Today, the company sources over 85% of its merchandise from non-U.S. factories, with 55% coming from Hong Kong and China.

In 2019 J.Crew put out an IPO with plans to spin-off the brand, though developments have recently taken a turn, and the outcome is yet to be known. Madewell now stands to be impacted amidst repercussions of the COVID-19 response by the J.Crew Group May 4, 2020 decision to file for bankruptcy protection

The company has also been run under frequently rotating CEOs, with the most current being longtime J.Crew executive Libby Wadle.

How Ethical Are They? 

The Talk Has Yet to Walk (It Became a Lecture Instead)

While we are soon sure to see significant changes, for the time being, Madewell is J.Crew–they company that bought its trademark and logo rights in 2003. So much so that Madewell does not have a company code of ethics of its own or supplemental policy. Madewell’s code and policies are J.Crew’s code and policies. 

The company’s Code of Ethics & Business Conduct is updated for 2021 with over twenty pages of social justice soapboxing, complete with an introduction in ethical decision making fit for a 5-year old, aimed at convincing employees and consumers that the company cares. Any language surrounding actual code and conduct is still ambiguous and–as is the ironic nature of most anti-discriminatory policies–fairly discriminatory.

Compared to the 2006 archive of the former J.Crew Group code of ethics, we see that the legalese hasn’t changed much–except amendments and additions to further protect the company from legal responsibility or accountability if any form of anything deemed unethical is ‘discovered’ within the operation. General ideas of “be nice or else” are given as basic conduct standards, only it’s been graffitied with social responsibility vernacular throughout. 

OK… but Not Good Enough

As a company, Madewell is not the most sustainable, nor is most of the denim it produces, as many have called out for the last decade. Among other things, it has received criticism surrounding transparency and living-wages for factory workers. 

The company didn’t even have a social responsibility claim until around 2018 – once bad press and consumer pressure forced them into action. Its website is now full of information on sustainability, eco-affiliations, labor standards, and auditing policies. 

This shows us two things: (1) the company is attempting to be more transparent, and (2) the company claims to have enough connections throughout the supply-chain to know how operations are conducted at all times. Therefore, any problems should be easily discovered and addressed immediately. Anything otherwise could suggest foul play.

Madewell has also recently signed the Uzbek Cotton Pledge and joined corporate sustainability initiatives such as Better Work, Fair Factories Clearinghouse, and Business for Social Responsibility. Plus, it recycles denim and has a line of Fair Trade-certified jeans in the Do Well Collection that are both socially and environmentally impactful.

Such affiliations could suggest the company is moving in a better direction; however, adequate action has yet to be taken that solves their problems with workers’ wages. Still, a complete list of suppliers is not openly shared, nor is evidence provided that proves all workers receive a living wage throughout the supply chain, including manufacturing.

In addition to the lack of transparency in its sourcing, J.Crew Group has not been forthcoming since its COVID-19 slowdown and sequential bankruptcy announcement about whether or not they will be paying factories for orders fulfilled. Meanwhile, the company’s creditors have filed lien disputes in court.

The slow-movement toward change is discerning, especially considering how boastful the company is of its aspirational ethics. Many argue that such an aggressive display of virtue is “just for show” and a way for the company to adhere to the UN Agenda 2030 Sustainability Goals, which has become a business model in itself for many companies who desire the global market to sustain their profit margins. 

Final Thoughts

Time will tell if Madewell’s efforts are genuinely earnest and if they will be successful in clearing their name from it’s short yet murky history in the global supply chain. As of now there is much to be desired. But at least the company is actively engaged in demonstrating its desire to correct its wrongs. And while we are not alone in remaining skeptical that Madewell’s profile page is only for show, we remain cautiously optimistic that this is not the case and that Madewell means to do well from here on out.

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