Outland Denim is a unique story in the world of for profit business. It is a brand that is using its power to create positive change in the fashion industry focusing on denim. Founded by Australian James Bartle, it is a brand whose very story is based on sustainability and saving women from a life of human trafficking. Many companies today support charities, but not many can say that from day one, they tried to make a difference. The company began with a chance encounter at a music festival between Bartle and an NGO focused on ending human trafficking. After a trip to Thailand and Cambodia and seeing how impoverished women were exploited and used in the sex trade, he made it his mission to help lift them out of poverty and begin a life free of abuse. We had a chance to speak with James Bartle about his business model, how he was inspired to help women in dire situations earn a living wage and use sustainable methods to create the popular jeans.
Many people would see the devastation of human and sex trafficking and not know how to go about helping. What were the steps that you took to make a difference? How did you decide that denim was the way to help get women off of the street and to earn a living wage?
I understood quickly that the root cause of the problem of exploitation was poverty and that employment was the answer. Everyone wears jeans and I am passionate about them; that is how I settled on denim. At the beginning, I did not understand how competitive the market was, which in hindsight, was probably a good thing. We are not a charity. We are a business focused on sustainability. It was a steep learning curve and we have evolved our business model along the way.
With no experience, how did you learn what you needed to about such a complex business?
Women’s livelihoods were on the line so we had a lot riding on this. Failure was not an option. We had access to people that were very experienced and have been able to propel the company forward. We are passionate about our business and always knew that our goal was to change people’s lives.
From an environmental standpoint, how is Outland Denim different from typical denim designers/suppliers?
To begin with, we own our own washing facility and have full control over production from start until finish. This is the most environmentally damaging part of the denim making process. We use vegetable based dyes to minimize the environmental impact. Most of the dyes end up in the oceans. We use organic cotton so that there is a reduction in the use of pesticides. The use of laser technology takes things a step further. Our water filtration and waste management systems will drastically change the impact that we have on the environment.
Social responsibility is becoming more and more important and you are one of the few companies that is really outspoken about the way that you create and design your denim. What changes are you hoping to see in the industry?
We exist to see change in the fashion industry. As mentioned, we own our own facilities which gives us control. Many brands do not. It is a long costly process to manufacture denim in a sustainable way and we want other companies to get on board. The industry really has not moved in this respect. About 99% of companies still do not even use organic cotton to produce their garments. I find this very frustrating. People need to be more aware, both as designers and consumers. Everyone can win from this type of business model, from the cotton growers to the manufacturers and ultimately the consumers. We created the model and produce a beautiful product that people want.
Finally, what message do you want to leave Outland Denim fans with so that they can be inspired to make a positive impact on the world like you did?
Remember, activism is not action. It is important because it makes us aware but it does not solve the problems. Action is what is important. As consumers, find brands that are doing things right. The way that you spend your dollars is how you can make a change – even in the fashion industry. Social enterprise is the future. We will be using business soon to take the pressure off of governments. It is really business and individuals that will change the world and it will not take too long for this to happen.
Learn more about Outland Denim at outlanddenim.ca and purchase the jeans in Canada now at Holt Renfrew. You will find them in spring 2019 at Sporting Life and Dutil.