Social responsibility award: outland denim

by Karen Alberg Grossman

“Our brand is about changing lives,” explains James Bartle, founder of Outland Denim. “We give people in desperate need the skills to earn a sustainable income and live a better life.”

About eight years ago, this young Australian was troubled by two emerging social trends: the enormous tragedy of human trafficking and the willingness of young consumers to spend more on brands with a conscience. Bartle began to wonder if it was possible for caring companies to help the 25 million people in forced labor around the world (4.8 million in the sex trade, 99 percent of whom are women and children).

It took him a good five years of research to create a business model to bring freedom to enslaved peoples. The result is Outland Denim. “The core of the brand is Zero Exploitation,” Bartle expounds. “We’re not a give-back program; we don’t ask for donations. Instead, we work with rescue agencies in Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma. We interview each girl they recommend to determine if she really wants to change her life. She then goes through multiple levels of employment, starting as an entry-level trainee, often in shipping. As she masters each skill and proves her commitment (via performance, punctuality, attendance, attitude), she moves to the next level with an increase in pay. Sometimes, entry-level employees become managers, but the real story is the restoration of dignity to their lives. Many previously had been factory workers putting in 14-hour days, seven days a week, sleeping on concrete floors, not seeing their kids. The Cambodian culture is focused on shame, so for these young women to transform from outcasts to providers and even leaders is truly life-affirming.”

Bartle grew up in rural Queensland among dirt roads, sheep and cattle farms. His dad was a pastor at the local church; Bartle was into camping, moto racing and performing at freestyle moto sports shows. “I learned compassion from my parents, whose front door was always open to anyone needing food, shelter or help of any kind; I often slept on the couch to give some stranger my bed. But it wasn’t until I watched the movie Taken that I was inspired to start this business: The horrifying statistics on human trafficking at the end of the film convinced me that I needed to do something. So, I connected with a rescue agency and traveled with it to observe what was happening. I’ll never forget that trip to Thailand where I first saw a little girl who was for sale: She looked about 12 years old and really frightened. I asked the agency how we could help her, and they replied that there’s nothing we can do, that this type of tragedy is happening everywhere.”

“So that’s why Outland Denim was created,” he adds. “We know the solution isn’t charity, which is only a Band-Aid. We need to change the culture so that everyone in the supply chain benefits: those who plant the cotton, who weave the denim, who buy and sell the jeans. That was our goal: No one would need to donate because the model would benefit all.”

Outland Denim now has more than 80 employees who are learning business and life skills. The jeans and related fashion items are selling well in top stores in Australia, the UK and Canada (Harry Rosen, Holt Renfrew, upscale independents) and soon the U.S. Several “influencers” (Meghan Markle, Leonardo DiCaprio) have been photographed wearing Outland jeans, giving a notable sales boost to this premium brand whose retail price points are in the $195-$205 range.

Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex in Dubbo, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Most importantly, the jeans are ethically and sustainably sourced using organic fibers and vegetable dyes. “We can’t separate the social from the environmental issues,” explains Bartle. “We can’t have a factory polluting the surroundings of the people we want to help. So, in addition to hiring a designer from the UK, we found a top sustainability expert from Turkey to manage the factory in Cambodia. We’ve invested heavily in a new state-of-the-art ozone washing facility, and we’re developing the most sustainable washes. At the moment, creating a sustainable product is more expensive but the more companies that do it, the cheaper it will get. This is why we recently joined the Global Fashion Agenda with other leaders in sustainability. It’s kind of ironic: We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars doing the research, developing the supply chain and building the model to create this humanitarian brand and now that it’s working, we’re making it available for anyone to copy. But that’s the win, isn’t it? Although a few of our investors don’t quite understand it, it’s bigger than Outland. We want to see a change in the world.”

Mike Purkis, a Canadian rep and president of Caulfeild Apparel (who bought into the Outland business as soon as he saw the collection and learned the backstory), reiterates this mission. “Our goal is to share our principles, to ensure people understand that the $100 billion a year fashion industry has the power to wipe out poverty around the world. If everyone paid $1 more for clothing, we could save a lot of lives.”

Bartle and his wife Erica have two young daughters, Isabel and Emily, so Outland’s humanitarian mission is all the more meaningful at this point in their lives. “Last year, our whole family spent three months in Cambodia, which was an amazing experience (except for our 2-year-old getting a serious bacterial infection). When our 6-year-old first noticed a young girl rummaging through the garbage bin, she asked me what she was doing. I explained that the girl was probably hungry and that the reason we were in this country was to help people who don’t have as much as we do. She immediately ran upstairs to our clean, comfortable unit and returned with an armful of her toys, declaring ‘Let’s go find her!’ I believe she now has a feel for what it’s about; I hope that sentiment stays with both of our girls forever.”

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