Q & A with Outland Denim Founder James Bartle
After attending the Where do my clothes come from? forum at Melbourne Fashion Week 2018, we were interested in what Outland Denim founder James Bartle had to say about the brand and its environmentally-conscious and ethical practices.
The fashion label evolved from The Denim Project, helping vulnerable young girls put their skills to use towards a sustainable career path. Now, Outland Denim has a training and production facility in Cambodia that is dedicated to a holistic care of their staff through wage and personal development initiatives. Even their material is ethically-sourced and environmentally-sound.
The United Nations Global Compact Initiative recognised their dedication to core values that prioritise both product and the individuals involved in manufacturing – not just a faceless factory production line – and the label is a proud member of this global business movement.
Read the exclusive and insightful Casper & Casper interview with the founder to find out more about their core philosophies, their membership with the UN Global Compact initiative and personalised advice from the founder himself.
From our recent research on the brand as well as listening to the forum, it is obvious that everyone at Outland Denim is passionate about the brands philosophy and it’s a shared belief that binds the whole team together.
What inspired you to build a business whose core philosophy is rooted in both helping young women and the environment?
My introduction to the world of human trafficking came from the Liam Neeson film, Taken, a fictional film inspired by the very real $150 billion illicit trade in human beings. During a music festival, I encountered an NGO who works in the field and later had the opportunity to travel with them to South-East Asia. I saw first-hand what it was like on the ground, and how human traffickers prey on vulnerable young girls – girls who weren’t much older than my nieces at the time. After a research period, we learnt that once a girl has been rescued and reintegrated into her family or community, a sustainable career path is vital for securing her future.
It was from there that the foundations of Outland Denim were laid as an avenue for training, employment and career progression for women who have experienced, or are at risk of experiencing, sex trafficking and other social injustices. Along the way we have learnt that denim is not only one of the most challenging sectors of the fashion industry to break in to, but also one of their dirtiest. So, while we initially set out to create something 100% socially sustainable, we now see the opportunity and our responsibility to help clean up the denim industry, too.
How did you go about finding people with similar values and philosophies, including the likes of designer Makala Schouls?
The common denominator in how each team member has found their way to Outland Denim is serendipity. All our staff have in one way or another heard the Outland Denim story, and it has not only inspired them, but driven them to learn more about the impact that our business model has, and offer their talents and skills.
The responsibility of producing ethical garments that are socially and environmentally considerate must have come with some challenges, what were some of the barriers you faced at the start?
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 learnt a lot along the way. For example, our knowledge about the denim industry and the way it impacts the environment was a bit of an uncomfortable revelation for a company that had social justice at its core.
The idea that you could help one group of people (i.e., trafficking survivors) in contributing to the cause while at the same time undermining another (i.e., poverty-stricken people affected by polluted waterways caused by industry such as fashion) 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 and utilising the most environmentally-responsible practises.
We now have a team dedicated to this side of our business. Along with that has come the cost of doing business ethically, so getting the right type of start-up investors on board with the right amount of capital to fund the infrastructure, the staff, and product and brand development, as you go about ironing out all the teething issues associated with doing a different kind of business, is important.
With a push for ethical fashion in the industry, how has this enabled you to grow as a company?
Consumers take ethical fashion a lot more seriously now than when we first started out eight years ago. Back then, it was more a niche conversation happening amongst members of the fashion community, and perhaps a bit elitist, but there is a lot more education and awareness now by comparison. The ABC show War on Waste was helpful in getting the issues into the public conscience in Australia. Unfortunately, the 2013 Rana Plaza incident in Bangladesh was also a pivotal moment played out on our iPhones and TV screens. People couldn’t ignore the structural dysfunctions of the fashion industry anymore. Rana Plaza was a game changer.
This means that people now are able to grasp what we do and why we do it beyond mere sentimentality and a pat on the head – these are real, life-changing issues we are dealing with, and doing fashion in the wrong way is an injustice to the hundreds of thousands of people – millions, even – caught up in the global fashion supply chain. Organisations and resources such as Fashion Revolution, Good On You, the BWA Ethical Fashion Report, B Corporation, and ethically-focused media have been vital in sharing our mission with customers, and in helping educate customers in the injustices of the fashion and denim industries.
For the many young upcoming designers wanting to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you offer them?
I think any young designer who wants to be taken seriously in fashion now has to have some credentials in sustainability, so it is worthwhile looking into courses with a focus on ethical and sustainable design and sourcing. There is a lot of information available, so it’s just a matter of deciding what to make your focus: empowering people in poverty through work, making fashion without animal by-products, recycling...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.
Outland Denim realises that the choices of a business greatly impact the environment and the rights of people involved behind the scenes. The label holds the proud accreditation of being a member of the UN Global Compact Network. Seeing their commitment to human rights, labour equality, environmental sustainability and anti-corruption measures is inspiring.
Congratulations on being approved for membership with the UN Global Compact initiative. Can you please explain to our audience what the ten principles of the initiative mean to you?
To me the principles represent the core, foundation values that organisations should hold and approach proactively surrounding the protection of human rights, labour rights, the environment, and anti-corruption practices.
Membership involves annual reporting on the significant improvements that we as an organisation have made in these areas across all levels of our supply chain.
What we appreciate about this system is that it will challenge us at Outland Denim to push ourselves even further to reach the requirement of not just maintenance, but annual improvement within the initiative’s ten principles.
In what ways have you put these principles into practice?
Manufacturing in-house gives us the freedom and control to set our own policies and procedures in place when it comes to the human rights, employment, and environmental points outlined in the initiative. And when it comes to our supply chain and business as a whole, 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.
How would you like to see Outland Denim evolve as a fashion label and as an industry leader in sustainable development?
As a fashion label, I see Outland Denim continuing to develop our range and offering to become a consistent source of wardrobe heroes for those who subscribe to a minimalist, timeless wardrobe philosophy with a few seasonal staples thrown into the mix.
At the moment, we are focusing our energies on closing the loop in terms of our environmental impact. We also look forward to releasing the first denims to be dyed in our new, stand-alone, state-of-the-art washing facility in Cambodia. This facility will not only give us the opportunity to welcome more staff to our team but will also give us greater control over our environmental impact.
But that’s just in the short term. In the long term, we hope to take the Outland Denim business model and use it create true, measurable, generational social change in vulnerable communities around the world.
The mission and vision of Outland Denim is grounded in sustainable development, remaining true to its core values by assuming responsibility of previously-vulnerable young girls, who now have attained the freedom to make their own choices. Their inspiration comes from the strength and courage of these young women who would otherwise be exploited, regardless of the industry they are in. They have certainly inspired us here at Casper & Casper to take a conscientious approach towards our fashion choices and look at them from a new perspective.
We realise that it is about making intelligent decisions and maintaining awareness of the people working behind the scenes: workers who are now empowered to choose, thanks to progressive labels like Outland Denim. By purchasing their products, we become part of a constantly-evolving chain moving towards good, sustainable practices in the industry – from environmentally-conscious sourcing of materials to ethical production to wearable fashion.