Business

Bringing Business to Life: Outland Denim

On World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, we speak to Outland Denim founder James Bartle about why he was inspired to launch the denim brand to support and employ victims of human trafficking, and the impact that the Duchess of Sussex's royal endorsement has had on the socially-oriented business and the people that it employs.
By Lori Delaney
30.07.19

What inspired you to launch Outland Denim?

Outland Denim’s story began about 10 years ago when my wife and I saw the movie ‘Taken’. While a fictional film, it was an introduction to the issue of human trafficking. I had no idea. Following on from that I had the opportunity to connect with an NGO doing work in the field with trafficked and exploited young women. They were concentrated in East Asia and the Pacific, which is where the majority of sex trafficking victims live, and they gave me the opportunity to engage with their work on the ground. I witnessed a very young girl being prostituted on the streets in Thailand. There was nothing I could do for her, which was frustrating; devastating. You can’t “unsee” something. So rather than feel powerless in the face of the problem and this little girl’s anguish, I started work on what’s now Outland Denim. We learnt that once a woman has been rescued and reintegrated into the community, a sustainable career path is vital for securing her future. Outland Denim was founded to offer that sustainable career path. But we also discovered that in addition to sex trafficking, trafficking for labour was also a common threat within vulnerable communities. So our mission has expanded to offer opportunities to people vulnerable to poverty, which is a root cause of trafficking.

Why jeans?

The universal, egalitarian appeal of denim speaks to our core as a humanitarian brand seeking to connect people to a way to create social change through the provision of an ethically made product. Jeans aren't a throw-away item (or, they shouldn’t be), but something you keep for years if they're of a good quality and the right fit. For most people, they're the foundation to a wardrobe that you build upon. People are passionate about their denims and loyal to their favourite denim labels, but they also want to invest in brands they believe to be doing the right thing by people and the planet. That’s where we come in.

What are your sustainable priorities for the business?

In founding Outland Denim, our priority was to develop a socially sustainable brand that combats poverty, provides opportunity to the world’s most vulnerable, and provides confidence to the wearer that no one was exploited in the process of making their jeans. Along the way we have learnt that denim is not only one of the most challenging tangents of the fashion industry to break in to, but also one of their dirtiest. So while we set out to create something 100% socially sustainable, we now see the opportunity and our responsibility to help clean up the denim industry, too. Our supply chain adheres to the highest standards of CSR - we are really vigilant about working with suppliers who share our values, and also working with them to improve practises and share knowledge. Internally, we are always working toward improvement and bettering ourselves. We are constantly learning. We have a dedicated Social and Environmental Impact Manager who ensures that every element of our supply chain, from the cotton farm to courier, aligns with our values, and she works hand-in-hand with our design team, our brand team, our communications team...in a truly sustainable business, you need all these departments to be communicating with each other effectively to deliver the best outcomes.

How have your eco strategy and sustainable practices developed as you have grown?

The idea that the garment industry could essentially cause poverty, or major health problems for people living in poverty, because of its practises was a real revelation as a brand with a social mission. The idea that you could help one group of people, while contributing to undermining another through hazardous practises leading to environmental degradation was something we couldn’t ignore, so we set about cleaning up our supply chain pretty quickly, and with that came the notion of ensuring that every aspect and person within our supply chain, from the cotton pickers to the denim mill and courier company, were slavery free while utilising the most environmentally responsible practises. We now have a team wholly dedicated to this side of our business. Fashion and our desire for it should not be trapping people in poverty or destroying their natural environments.

How challenging has it been to maintain your eco principles? What have been the biggest prohibitors to progress?

I think that if we had tried to tackle everything from the start, we may not have got out of the gates, so we have done things incrementally and have made mistakes but have learnt a lot along the way and made corrections accordingly. For example, our knowledge about the denim industry and its impacts on the environment was a bit of an uncomfortable truth for a company that had social justice at its core. Along with that has come the cost of doing business ethically and sustainably, which are significant. It would be much cheaper to produce in the traditional way of looking for the lowest cost centres with the cheapest labour and low quality materials and mass volume. That is absolutely not what we do. So getting the right type of start-up investors on board with the right mentality about slow-but-purposeful growth, and the right amount of capital to fund the infrastructure, the staff, and product and brand development, as we go about ironing out all the teething issues associated with doing a different kind of business, has been important. There is no perfect company, but we do try to adhere to our principles and be transparent when we fall short.

The Duchess of Sussex is a fan of the brand - what was the impact of her wearing your jeans during the royal tour of Australia and New Zealand?

You cannot put a price on the brand recognition nor the credibility that the Duchess is able to bestow on a small, socially oriented enterprise such as ours. When you think about the fact that what we try to do with Outland is imbue our staff members in Cambodia with a sense of dignity in their work and their value as human beings, a quiet, dignified Royal endorsement such as this is incredibly powerful. Our staff can't quite believe royalty is wearing their jeans. Importantly, the greatest success that has come from the "Markle Effect" for Outland Denim, is the 40+ new seamstresses who we have been able to employ in our Cambodian production house. That’s 40+ women with a life-changing opportunity, living wages, and a myriad other benefits that we offer. In terms of growing our business exponentially, Meghan has enabled us to do this in a very tangible, immediate way. She has opened doors for Outland.

 

With your online store now open in the UK, what are your plans for future expansion?

We are undergoing some major infrastructure developments, including a new cut-make-trim facility to comfortable facilitate our new staff and the expansion of staff, as well as investing in a stand-alone denim laundry and finishing, which will enable us to have full control over our product, which is really exciting. We look forward to partnering with stockists in the UK, and talking with the UK consumer and media about our brand. In the long term, we hope to take the Outland Denim business model and use it to create true, measurable, generational social change in vulnerable communities around the world.

What advice would you give to anyone hoping to launch a sustainable business?

There is a lot of information available, so it’s also a matter of deciding what to make your focus: empowering people in poverty through work, making fashion without animal by-products, recycling waste...it’s handy to have a mandate to help focus your work. It is much easier to consider your material inputs and suppliers at the concept stage, rather than undoing things later.

Which other sustainable businesses have inspired you?

There are some cool brands in the sustainable sneaker category, like Veja and Allbirds, who are really challenging the big players to up their game. It’s great to think that these start-up brands can influence the industry for good.

What have been your biggest milestones and triumphs until now?

While we’ve been developing Outland for almost a decade, we took it to market in September 2016, and the reception we received even back then was really encouraging, as the conversation in the fashion industry around sustainability was starting to gain real momentum. We gained B Corporation status in 2018, which was also significant. Having Meghan wear our jeans was a pivotal moment in time for us as a brand, and the expansion of our sewing team thereafter was extremely satisfying; this is what we are all about. Creating the opportunities. And it has taken us a long time and a lot of hard work to get to this point. You have to make the most of your “moments in time”, as the opportunities might not come around again. To have our new sewing facility and wash house in operation will be extremely gratifying. But there is still so much work to do.

 

Learn more about Outland Denim and why it has been awarded the Eco-Age Brandmark.

Read more from our Bringing Business to Life series, including our interview with Allbirds founder Tim Brown.

Discover how the Duchess of Sussex became a sustainable fashion champion.

 

Bringing Business to Life: Outland Denim