Like most shoppers, I have a hard time finding jeans that fit just right. There are a handful of sustainable denim companies to choose from, but I had never found jeans from an ethical brand that worked for me, until I tried on this washed black pair from Outland Denim. I can happily confirm that they don't stretch out after wearing them multiple times, they aren't randomly baggy in the knee area (this is a common issue for me, ha!), they give your butt a nice little boost, and they have just enough stretch to make them comfortable rather than confining. This is important because, let's face it, a pair of jeans could be manufactured with the highest environmental standards, and the company could donate 100% of the profits to your favorite cause, but if they aren't flattering you're simply not going to wear them.
The good news is, on top of perfecting skinny jeans, Outland Denim has some of highest ethics I've ever come across in a company.
They provide training and living-wage jobs for human trafficking survivors and women who are at-risk for trafficking in Cambodia.
They were the first Australian denim company to become a certified B Corporation.
They are committed to sourcing "the most ethically and environmentally sound raw materials," from their pocket lining to their recycled packaging.
The list goes on. Baptist World Aid's 2018 Ethical Fashion Guide rated them an A+ in every area: their policies, transparency and traceability, auditing and supplier relationships, and worker empowerment. Out of 407 brands evaluated, Outland Denim was one of eight to get an A+ average, and the ONLY brand to get an A+ across all 4 categories! That's a pretty big deal.
I was honored to get the opportunity to interview James Bartle, Outland Denim's founder, and learn more about these impressive initiatives, the future of the brand, and his musical inspiration.
MFG: I loved learning about your sewing training program -- that your sewers rotate manufacturing functions. How often do they rotate, and is it a set schedule or based on the individual?
James Bartle: All new Outland recruits start by learning the basic skill of sewing on back pockets. Once their handling has improved, they can move on to sewing panels, leaning more complicated stitches and working with specialised machines. Every month we grade them on both their quality of skill and the number of skills acquired and give them a rating which corresponds to a particular pay grade. There is always more to learn and opportunity to do so, and by financially incentivizing their upskilling, it places the power in their hands. We've had women who have risen from having no skills to being highly-trained section leaders, while other women may find a position they're comfortable in, and continue to hone one particular skill. In that sense, the course of the development is quite individual. But our aim is always to empower the women to gain as much skill as they aspire to, and also to be able to construct a full jean should they wish to do so.
MFG: Outland Denim's mission is to "set a standard for the treatment and remuneration of young female workers in the garment industry". What does the standard you're setting look like, and how do you see young female workers being treated differently in the garment industry today?
James Bartle: When we started work in Cambodia, we were able to boast of paying our seamstresses six times the minimum wage - that’s how low the minimum was. Since then, thanks to the sheer economic force of the garment industry in Cambodia, to the unions and to international pressure and consciousness raising, that minimum wage has increased quite considerably. But it is still a minimum wage. It means a better quality of life, but one that is still struggling to make ends meet relative to living standards. And it also means young women can’t really get ahead because many of them are responsible for sending part of their wages home to their families in rural communities. They are a very familial culture, which is admirable in so many ways. But many of the families are paying off debt and their daughters are carrying a part of that burden, which means that if they desired to work their way out of a garment factory, for example, and maybe study or skill in another area, their options are very limited.
So what we are doing is setting a precedent for the treatment of workers also by saying, “We believe they are not only worth a living wage, but also worthy of participating in other life growth activities that can help them to be more socially mobile and increase their options and employability.” That means not only survival but thriving in a developing society.
MFG: What made you choose Cambodia for manufacturing? As you grow, do you plan on expanding there or will you open factories in other countries?
James Bartle: We chose Cambodia because we developed a good working relationship with an NGO on the ground that we trusted, and was prepared to help us along in developing our business model incorporating local people and local knowledge. It’s very important to have that in-country input and cultural awareness. Now we have our model in place, and we’ve seen the social change it can make in individual lives but also collectively, we would like to explore moving into other regions and countries where there are pockets of vulnerable people who need an opportunity.
MFG: Speaking of expanding, do you have any product expansion plans? I would love Outland Denim vests, jackets and dresses!
James Bartle: We do! Our spring/summer ‘19 range includes jackets, shorts, tees and skirts, no dresses yet. We will keep you posted! Denim is a very versatile fabric, and increasingly sustainable but we want to create products that also last forever in your wardrobe, so we are mindful of creating garments that people not only want but that they will love and wear for years.
MFG: I can tell that my pair of Outland Denim jeans are super well made and will last for years, but all clothing wears out eventually. When that happens what do you recommend? What is the best way to sustainably dispose of or recycle them?
James Bartle: Yes, we do intend that our jeans are with you for years. That’s partly why we chose to work with denim and jeans particularly - unless they are really cheaply made and get out of shape, you might put a pair in hibernation for a season or two but you generally won’t chuck out your jeans. We recommend making friends with a tailor to attend to any issues over the lifetime of your denims. And we are all for having your jeans deconstructed or upcycled as well. We have worked with a few design partners in putting our offcuts to good use, and we are also looking at recycling programs. But for a relatively small company, all this takes significant capital input. Still, we have some exciting pipeline projects happening to ramp up our sustainability that will talk to this issue specifically.
MFG: Sometimes people gloss over terms like "circular business model", but that is a super important concept to grasp. Can you explain what that looks like in your company?
James Bartle: Our circular model applies to both our social mission and our environmental mission which function separately but also cross over because we believe you can’t be a social enterprise and not take your environmental practices seriously as the evidence is clear that some of the world’s most vulnerable people are also at the behest of the world’s worst environmental practices, and that includes fashion.
So, on a social level, our business model tries to add social value at every touch point with our employees to create not only individual but generational change. From our training program, to upskilling employees, to our educational programs and remuneration policies, we are trying to give our seamstresses social protection from vulnerability to poverty, exploitation and slavery. In turn, the skills they learn and their income helps to support their siblings and families while also lifting up the broader community.
One of our seamstresses was able to put a roof on her family’s home and buy her sister out of bondage - these are significant events for young women who were formerly devalued by society.
It is restoring human dignity and setting a status quo. In turn, these young women add value to our business by creating amazing denim jeans and really excelling at their jobs, while also passing on their knowledge to other seamstresses in training and becoming role models in their families and communities. That is social circularity!
On an environmental level, from our design process to our supply chain, to tracking raw material components and finding ways to be more environmentally efficient, we are all about creating the most amount of value for the customer while minimizing our environmental impact and also encouraging responsibility for the care of garments at the user end. We have put significant human and capital resources behind our environmental stewardship - we have an internal Social and Environmental Impact Officer and an in-house environmental Systems engineer, and we are committed to third party auditing also. We have some pretty exciting projects in the works on the environmental side.
MFG: "Ethical fashion" is a subjective term, and everyone has different areas of emphasis within ethical fashion that they're passionate about. What does ethical fashion mean to you?
James Bartle: It means making sure no one loses out so you can “win” at fashion. Take a “first do no harm” approach and if at all possible back brands that aim to add value to people and the planet, not detract or exploit.
MFG: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs looking to make a difference with their company?
James Bartle: The one thing that will sustain you when money is scarce and your energy is low is your commitment and passion. You have to be 100% devoted to your cause, your mission and your purpose and you have to be able to communicate it with your people to get them on board when the going gets tough - and it will! Anything worth fighting for has a cost, so you have to be prepared to wear it.
MFG: I learned about human trafficking through a music/social justice documentary, so I was fascinated to read that you learned about it at a music festival. What festival were you at, how did you learn about it there, and how did the awareness prompt your trip to Asia?
James Bartle: It was a youth music festival in Toowoomba, a town about two hours northwest of where I live. My wife and I had been attending for a few years before I came across a tent run by Destiny Rescue, which is an NGO working in the realm of human trafficking. Prior to that encounter, I’d learnt about the trafficking of people through a film called Taken. So that was my sort of “awakening” to the issue, and the crew behind Destiny Rescue helped to broaden my understanding. I accompanied them to Thailand and Cambodia to see their work first-hand.
MFG: I'm making a playlist of my interviewees' favorite songs. What are two of your favorite songs? Can be classic or new artists :)
James Bartle: Randy Travis and Josh Turner - "Forever and Amen" is at the top of the list this month. Can't imagine having a voice that goes that low, must say though, its not so popular in the Outland office...haha
Photos by Lace & Lapel
Additional photos provided by Outland Denim