Outland Denim: slave-free jeans
By BEL JACOBS
What do Stella McCartney, New Zealand designer Maggie Marilyn, Reformation and Rothy Shoes have in common - apart from a shared sense of responsibility to the planet? They’ve all been worn by Meghan Markle, who is, quite literally, putting her conscience on her sleeve, dresses and trousers.
And what timing - because never has the world so desperately needed a fashion figurehead who proclaims their love for good labels. One of the brands donned by the new Duchess of Sussex - five times - during her recent tour of Australia was Outland Denim. The brand has a mission: to change the lives of women rescued from sex trafficking in Asia by employing them to make its jeans.
So when Outland Denim reported an almost 1000 per cent increase of traffic on its website as a result of the ‘Meghan effect’, the effect was felt, not simply in profit margins, but by the new seamstresses the brand was able to hire in its Cambodian production house. I talk to founder James Bartle about making the world a better place through fashion.
Tell me about the beginnings of Outland.
We went to Pattaya in Thailand, dubbed the sex capital of the world, with an NGO called Destiny Rescue. As we walked up the street, it felt very heavy but the women seemed happy and I was so naive about what’s behind it all. Then, we got to the end of the street and there was a line-up of women. One of the girls was really young and I could see the fear in her eyes. She didn’t want to be there and she was looking at the older girls, asking ‘Do I stand here? What do I do?’ I turned to the guys and I said ‘Look, this little girl, she could be 12 or 13. What can we do for her?” And they just said, “James, if you look around, these girls are everywhere.”
It must have been soul-destroying to leave her behind.
You could have just gone in, guns blazing, and taken somebody, but it’s not an approach that is sustainable - or helpful. I often think, did she have somebody looking for her?
From there, you started researching into why women ended up in Pattaya. What was the answer?
Poverty. Poverty is making these women vulnerable. So we thought “What can we do to combat poverty?’ - and we knew [the answer] was longterm, sustained employment.
What were the challenges?
Well, somebody who’s traumatised as many of these women are is often not very employable. Some don’t even know how to sweep a floor. So we developed a business model built on four areas: opportunity, training, living wages and education. We pay the women living wages from the day they come in. It’s expensive because you’re giving a salary to someone who doesn’t have any skills - but it has to happen. Living wages mean they can pay for rent and healthcare and send their children for school. Training means they can climb the ladder and become section leaders or work with inventory. In just over two years, we turn them into artisanal seamstresses, who’ve learnt how to make premium quality jeans, which is quite a unique skill set. And there are so elements [about this] that is restorative for them. We now know that, if a woman starts working in this model, she then has the ability herself to remove herself and her family from what she has previously faced.
Education is particularly important.
It’s one of the most powerful elements. We’re so privileged [in the West], we don’t even realise the education we’ve been given - in money, in health. One of the short courses we ran was on breastfeeding and it’s one of my favourites because it has such a wide impact. Because of corporate marketing, many women believed that the best thing for their child was baby formula. And what made it worse was that they were mixing the formula with water that had been polluted by [the fashion] industry. So basically, the fashion industry is poisoning infants and the drug companies are marketing formula as the best way to feed your child. With this one course, we’d saved these poor people from spending money on formula and mixing it with contaminated water.
It’s a very holistic approach to answering poverty - and it gives a lot of control back to the women.
That is the key. They have the power. We do not do it for them. We teach work ethic, but they are the ones who have to apply themselves - and they do, because they’ve come from hell. Ours is potentially the most powerful story you will find in fashion as far as social impact goes. We get requests now from incredible organisations to come and do case studies on how the heck is this working so well. Foreign aid isn’t very [effective] - but this? This changes lives. This changes society. This changes culture. Rather than us maintaining control by giving out handouts, this gives power back to the people so that they can make the change themselves.
You must have many wonderful stories .…
Yes, stories of girls being able to build a home for a family. If it happened here in London, it would be front page news: ‘girl buys sister back from someone who owned her in London.’ And we don’t just employ trafficked girls. There’s one woman who always brings tears to my eyes. She is the most beautiful woman with such severe disabilities. She was on the streets trying to make a living as a tailor and now, she is one of our best seamstresses. She’s a prime example of someone who was extremely vulnerable but who is now in a happy, secure, loving environment where she is thriving as a leader.
What of the future?
We’re very happy with where we’re at and the impact it’s having, but we can always do better at making it even more effective. The more jeans we sell, the more people we employ, it’s as simple as that. We’re not a charity. We’re very passionate about genuine sustainability and about our product.
People and planet go together.
You can’t separate them. I used to say ‘Oh, I care about people.’ And anyone who cared about the environment was a bit of a tree-hugging hippy. Then I realised that they are so interconnected. So we adopted the hashtag zero exploitation - and that’s zero exploitation on every level. Everyone needs to be looked after. On the environmental side, our goal is not simply to reduce our impact, it is to eradicate it so that you know that if you buy our product, it’s actually going to be of benefit to the planet [as opposed to] not as bad as another product. We’re working with a university in Australia on creating new ways of doing that.
Cotton is a damaging, difficult crop. What have you decided to use?
Organic cotton and, again, yes, here’s a lot of pretty violent debates around these issues. We’re always ready to work towards [higher standards] and, rather than debate so aggressively, we need to work together towards solutions and be more collaborative. That is a whole other conversation. If you are genuine about wanting to change the industry, then you’ll be open with your findings.
That’s sounds like quite a balancing trick balance for a profit-making company.
Yes. How do you keep your IP secure enough that you build a sustainable brand and just change the industry at the same time? We’ve seen other denim brands doing similar things to us. [We try to take it] a compliment because it means that we’re on to something but, by the same token I need to be sustainable. Because if I’m not sustainable, then all the people we employ don’t have jobs.
So fashion can be genuinely transformative.
We genuinely believe the fashion industry has the ability to eradicate poverty. We met a journalist, Teun van de Keuken, who founded Tony’s Chocolonely, a Dutch slave-free chocolate company. He was asked ‘Do you think there should be a seal to show people things are made the right way?’ And he said ‘No, I think there should be a seal to show people things are made the wrong way.’ That was so brilliant. Because it’s all about slavery. Today, we can’t imagine how anyone thought it was ok to trade somebody because they were black. Well, in the future, people will ask: ‘How the hell did these people think it was okay to enslave people so they could have cheap fashion?’
How is today’s landscape different from when you launched?
Eight years ago, no one was interested. Today, no matter where I go, people want to be involved. This is a time where brands and human beings will stand out as changemakers for the future because the community is ready. Sixty five per cent of millennials, for example, are more interested in experience than they are in brand - which means they want a story attached to the products that they consume. So this is an incredible opportunity but it only works if it works on a commercial level because the rest of the industry will never follow on if it doesn’t make money. That’s why it always comes back to product. Your product has to sell so it has to be beautiful. We spend a lot of time sourcing beautiful fabrics and doing beautiful washes - and the result is that you’re going to change people’s lives across the globe and you’re going to solve some of the greatest environmental problems we face today.
There is an argument that we should simply be making - and buying - less things.
I think it’s an entirely flawed concept. I agree that, instead of buying five pairs of jeans, we should be buying just one better quality pair. But what I don’t agree with is creating this massive industry and then taking it away again. It would lead to insanely powerful problems on a social level. Cambodia has 800,000 garment workers. Are you going to find new jobs for all of them? The conversation we should be having instead is how to manage the waste, how to manage water, how to solve this problem. It frustrates me. Richard Branson can fly a rocket to the moon; why can’t we solve this? And it’s because people don’t want to solve it. It’s because no one is prepared to put their money into it. We will continue to fight for these things until the day we die. It is what we are here to do: find solutions and then show the industry and the world that there is a better way. We are very committed to becoming as big as we can, to help as many people as we can, to mitigate this issue that we are facing.