How Liz Hershfield is pioneering sustainability at Madewell and J.Crew

A Q&A with the company’s head of sustainability.
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Photo: Elena Olivo

· 6 min read

The way it usually works is that we, swathed in athleisure and WFH, email this newsletter, which you, also swathed in athleisure and WFH, open and (we like to think) read. But last week was different. We all reacquainted ourselves with buttons and these straps for holding up pants we found in the back of the closet that—if memory serves—are called “belts,” and converged in Manhattan’s Financial District.

It was Retail Brew’s first non-virtual The Checkout Forum, and we talked to Liz Hershfield, SVP and head of sustainability at J.Crew Group and SVP of sourcing at Madewell. Along with Madewell’s popular denim-recycling program, which accepts used jeans from any brand and gives shoppers $20 off a new pair in return, Hershfield has overseen Madewell’s resale platform, Madewell Forever, which launched in 2021, and myriad sustainability initiatives for the Madewell, J.Crew, and J.Crew Factory brands.

  • Hershfield previously held positions at companies including Gap Inc., Bonobos, and Walmart.

Check out the entire conversation with Hershfield here—which included a gasp from the audience when she revealed just how many pairs of jeans she owns. And keep reading for an excerpt.

So when you were little, playing with your Fisher-Price cash register and thinking about the career you’d have in business, was this a thing: “head of sustainability”?

Nope, did not exist.

Can you talk a little bit about the evolution of this as a title and a practice and how you came to it?

Outside of some real leaders in the industry, it was in the past 10 years that it’s really become a thing. I have been in the retail and fashion industry for my entire career—over 27 years, which will age myself. And about seven years ago, I started getting immersed in it and just really learning and understanding what the impact was that we were having as we’re producing clothes and just became really passionate about doing that in a responsible way.

So you’ve always been on the sourcing side?

Sourcing and product development, yeah.

In the role that you’re in now, what are the biggest benchmarks you have for both Madewell and J.Crew?

We actually have really similar goals. We have fiber goals—100% of our key fibers being sustainably sourced by 2025—well on our way for both of the brands there. We also have a goal of carbon neutrality by 2030. We also have a goal around ridding our supply chain of virgin plastics—we’re actually transitioning to recycled poly bags starting in 2023, which we’re really excited about. And then the other benchmark, which is so special and really sets us apart, is fair-trade. Because sustainability is about the environment, but it’s about people also.

You launched the resale platform for Madewell last year. Is there concern that Madewell could be cannibalizing sales of new items by having competing used products that are so much cheaper?

It comes up a lot, but we haven’t seen that. And the data for those that are in [resale] and have been in it for some time doesn’t show that either. It’s actually a great way to bring newer young customers into the brand who maybe like to thrift or who can’t afford or don’t want to spend the money. It’s an entryway to the brand, and then they might go and buy something from our regular Madewell storefront, so I don’t think it cannibalizes.

When you did this big resale play, you went to ThredUp and didn’t do it in-house. Why do brands like yours partner with ThredUp instead of just hanging a shingle yourself?

It’s really hard to do, and they’re experts at it. They have it down. They have the infrastructure. They power our website, and we send all of the product we collect directly to them, and they sort through it.

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Obviously, there’s a branding and environmental argument for resale. Is there also a bottom-line argument?

We’re still in the early stages of that part of the industry, but it is growing at a very, very rapid rate. There is an argument to say that it really can provide incremental business. But currently, for us, it’s really about sustainability and offering circularity and the ability to extend the life of our product. We didn’t approach it looking at it for it to be a profit center; we approached it really, like, this is the right thing to do. We make a high-quality product—it should live longer than just like when it’s purchased once and then discarded.

One of the goals is to double the life span of Madewell garments, right?

Yeah, if not, three, four times, because denim, particularly, should be worn until it’s falling apart. It’s so strong. It’s such a great product.

Is there a way to actually know how long a garment lasts? There’s not an obituary or something when someone throws away their jeans, so how do you know if you’re reaching that goal?

Ultimately, the next phase of this is a technology piece where you actually have something like RFID, or something in the garment that tracks it. We’re not there yet. And I think there’s a lot of complications—privacy and all that type of stuff.

Can you talk about your career in denim, even before you were working on sustainability?

I have been doing denim from very early days in my career, but I think the most defining for me was my time at Old Navy. I started doing denim—their product development and production—and just became fascinated with it. Because it is a really special product. It is not like anything else that we manufacture. It has so much flexibility. The fabric is made in a way and the yarns are dyed in a way that’s meant to wear down. Therefore, it offers you so much flexibility: You can have one fabric and do 20 different things with it. There’s nothing else you can do that with. It’s just really fascinating.

But can’t denim be a lot more resource intensive than other fabrics?

Absolutely, it can be really water intensive, it can be chemical intensive. And so there’s a lot going on in the industry now to reduce that. Mills are offering fabrics that don’t need as much water or as much time or energy like in a washing machine or dryer.

Do you own a lot of jeans?

I do own a lot of jeans. I still remember the only pair that I ever gave away, and I still regret it every day.

How many do you think that you have?

100, I would say. I pull them out and I’m like, “Oh, some of them are coming back now,” with wide legs and all this stuff.

If you were to step out of here tonight and get hit by a bread truck, what would happen to your clothes? Are people putting clothing in wills?

It’s funny that you say that because I actually had put a will together a few years ago. And the lawyer said, “You should decide who’s gonna get your clothes because you don’t think people are gonna argue about it, but they do.”

Wow, so you did?

Yeah, it was really funny.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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