Outland Denim - A denim brand to end poverty

Without sustainable employment avenues, women who have experienced exploitation, whether through sex trafficking or being trafficked for other forms of forced labour, will continue to be vulnerable beyond their initial experience.

Husband and wife team and co-founders James and Erica Bartle believe that employment with a fair wage is key to solving this issue and that is what they aimed to achieve when creating Outland Denim, a denim brand to end poverty.

Outland Denim crafts premium denim jeans, sourcing the finest raw materials from around the world, while offering sustainable employment and training opportunities to women who have experienced exploitation.

“Sudden income shocks, lack of social safety nets, low education, low literacy and dependence on creditors is linked to bonded labour and exploitation,” Erica says.

“The majority of women we work with at Outland Denim have a very low level of education. Approximately 42% of our staff have not gone past a Primary Grade 6 level of education and approximately 17% have not gone past a 4th Grade level.

“We act as a buffer; preventative and protective for both victims and for the vulnerable.”

Outland Denim is a profit-for-purpose fashion brand that exists to protect vulnerable young women from modern slavery and liberate them from circumstances of human trafficking, labour exploitation and/or underemployment due to things such as physical disabilites. It does this by offering training and employment through its stand-alone production facilities in Cambodia.

“The story of Outland Denim really began back in 2011, after James witnessed a young girl for sale on the streets of Thailand,” Erica says.

“He had accompanied an anti-trafficking, non-governmental organisation on a tour of Southeast Asia to learn more about human trafficking, after first being introduced to the problem when watching the film Taken.

“He really wanted to find a sustainable and long-term solution and that is where Outland Denim came into the picture.”

When the team first started Outland Denim, the term “social enterprise” wasn’t such a well known quantity.

“It was a bit of a leap for some people to think of us as anything other than a charity when in reality we just needed people to buy the product to contribute to the social impact we were striving to make,” Erica says.

“Creating a world-class, beautiful standard of product, with the right imagery to cut-through in the marketplace has been key, but has also taken a long time to perfect.

“Another challenge was the pivot we made in 2016 from a not-for-profit to a profit-for-purpose model. It was a bit of a cultural change internally and came with some trepidation, but has allowed us to scale the business to create more opportunities.”

Since then the highlights have been many.

“We have been able to take on private investment and found representation in North America. Then Meghan Markle wore our jeans and we haven’t looked back since,” Erica says.

“The private seed investment helped us to capitalise our infrastructure and build our social business model and some brand awareness. We also hosted an equity crowdfunding campaign earlier this year with Birchal, which raised $1.32 million during COVID-19. This funding has really helped build our digital sales channel, has contributed to product development and been invested in some exciting R&D projects in the sustainability space.

“We have been able to expand our impact from five seamstresses to around 90 in our operations in Cambodia and continue to drive innovation and improvements across the business at every level.”

Looking forward, the Outland Denim team is building out the product range to offer customers more than just denim, while also working to be a world-leading brand in humanitarian efforts.

“We want to address problems of modern slavery and oppression within the global fashion industry (namely of workers in supply chains),” Erica says.

“We also want to look at the environmental degradation wrought by what has been an incredibly wasteful and negligent industry with repercussions for vulnerable communities globally.

“In line with these goals we will be releasing our first sustainability report to the public this year, which is an important part of our ongoing communication efforts to be as transparent and proactive - with our consumers and society at large - as possible for the greater good.

“Going beyond paying lip service to the Sustainable Development Goals, incorporating them into every level of business operations is becoming increasingly important. Consumers are becoming more privy to the shortcomings of corporations and call them out on social media when they fall short on delivering positive outcomes for people and the planet.”