The ethical denim label founded just nine years ago made some of its greatest strides in 2020 supporting survivors of sex trafficking. It launched anti-slavery initiatives, earned global recognition and invited the world to join in on its efforts, all while upholding some of the highest circularity standards in the industry—significant achievements for a small fashion brand.
Using fashion as a force for good is the principle upon which CEO James Bartle founded the company. In 2011, Bartle launched the brand to provide employment opportunities and living wages to vulnerable populations in Cambodia. Employees receive education and life skills training to arm them with the tools needed to live independently.
But while the brand serves to do good for some of the most vulnerable populations in the world, Bartle clarifies that it’s not a charity.
“We are a for-profit business,” he said. “In fact, that’s what makes this so powerful. We believe that if business is going to exist, every person along the way should benefit.”
Starting off strong
It’s these commitments that earned the brand a Thompson Reuters Stop Slavery Award at the beginning of the year. With this honor, Outland joined the ranks of past winners such as Apple, Intel, Adidas and Unilever, and added yet another accolade to its growing list of industrywide acclaim.
Every year since 2015, the Stop Slavery Awards have recognized companies with leading policies for reducing the risk of slavery in their supply chain and operations. Winners are determined by a panel of judges including human rights activists, Nobel Peace Prize laureates, criminal lawyers and industry experts.
For Bartle, the award inspired him to think even bigger.
“This award is a testament to the huge power small and medium-size businesses can have in eradicating forced labor and contributing to positive social change in vulnerable communities, while inspiring others in their field to do the same,” he said.
Rallying the world
Though some would put their fundraising efforts on hold during a time of mass economic hardship, the brand continued with its plans to launch its first crowdfunding campaign.
In March, the brand invited the world to become a part of its ethical movement by giving consumers—not just private investors—the opportunity to own shares in the company. With as little as 250 Australian dollars ($175), consumers could help create positive social change.
The campaign proved to be a success. Bartle’s team raised roughly $1.3 million Australian dollars ($993k) from 1,000 micro investors. According to Bartle, the crisis may have actually contributed to its accomplishment.
“There’s going to be a greater need than ever before for brands to have a compelling story,” Bartle said. “The marketplace will be thinned out, as lots of brands unfortunately won’t make it through this. But it will make way for brands like Outland Denim to have a greater impact and more dominance in the market.”
With the funding, Outland is doubling down on strategic partnerships and opening its Cambodian manufacturing facilities to other brands.
Prioritizing the planet
In conjunction with these plans, Outland established an in-house standard for sustainability which it will extend to its partnering brands. In August, the brand published its first sustainability report highlighting its move to 100 percent leather-free designs, increase in natural raw material use, reduction of water and chemical usage and the development of “the most sustainable vintage wash denim on the market.”
This year also saw the debut of denim designed in accordance with requirements set within the Ellen MacArthur Jeans Redesign project: the Amy wide leg, a high-rise jean made with a blend of recycled and organic cotton woven together with Lyocell, and chambray shirting for men and women made with 100 percent organic vegetable dyed cotton and efficient water and energy-saving processes.
The brand is currently working on technology that changes how the industry manages its post-industrial and post-consumer waste. In the next two years, it plans to change the interlining of jeans waistbands to one made of recycled polyester. It’s also swapping out traditional black dyes for ones that are organic or plant-based.
After evaluating its production calendar, the brand is also planning to produce bi-monthly capsule collections as opposed to seasonal drops to reduce waste and keep a more even cash flow for its workers.
Despite these advancements and plans for the future, Bartle says there’s always progress to be made.
“As we research and innovate, our aim is to create a product that actually creates a positive environmental, social and economic impact—something not yet seen in the garment industry today,” he said.
Outland Denim set more ambitious goals in the final quarter of 2020 than most do in a lifetime. In October, the brand published a report in partnership with the University of Nottingham Rights Lab explaining what researchers are calling a “freedom dividend” that demonstrates where slavery is suppressed, the economy grows.
The report includes data from employees within the brand’s Cambodian facilities who reported a better quality of life as a result of the ethical business model, and encourages other companies to adopt similar practices.
“In partnering with the University of Nottingham to produce this report, it’s our hope that more businesses, particularly in the fashion sector, would see the humanitarian benefit associated with adopting business structures and practices that help to alleviate the suffering of some of the most vulnerable people in our world,” he said.
But it also extends beyond that. The report also encourages businesses to identify the current risks of modern slavery throughout their supply chains—and it’s what led the brand to its next initiative: the Supply Network Intelligence System.
Outland Denim developed the program in partnership with Nudie Jeans and IT company Precision Solutions Group (PSG) to seek out and resolve instances of deliberate exploitation, slavery and unsafe working conditions, starting with organic cotton farms in Turkey. Both brands turn to this farm to source the cotton they use to create their denim.
As of Oct. 27, the program has already reached 1.5 million individuals, and resulted in 150 communications arranged with the human rights hotline. Additionally, 370 vulnerable individuals have benefited from the distribution of Covid-19 prevention kits.
The program continues Outland’s mission of bettering the world through fashion.
“The onus is on a business to not only eradicate slavery from its supply chains, or adhere to minimum labor standard requirements, but to be adding value to the people involved in creating its products and services from the farm to factory and office floor,” said Bartle. “We must remember that these are people with hopes and dreams and families.”