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How Outland Denim’s Business Model Promotes ‘Freedom Dividend’

A new report proves the effectiveness of impact-led fashion.

Australian apparel company Outland Denim recently published a report in partnership with the University of Nottingham Rights Lab on the link between employees at the brand’s Cambodian facilities and what researchers are calling a “freedom dividend” for formerly enslaved young women.

University of Nottingham Professor Kevin Bales, a modern slavery researcher who led the report, describes the freedom dividend as “the idea that, where slavery is suppressed, the economy grows.” The report estimates that 40.3 million people are enslaved today—many of whom work in fashion—and that changing the way the industry is run can lower that number and improve economies around the world.

The findings show that offering basic human rights, job and life skills training, and access to medical and psychological care has a positive domino effect on both the individual and the surrounding society: The study’s participants showed measurable change in education, health, housing, socio-economic standing, low debt load and higher savings frequency. They also reported feeling more empowered and ambitious for their children, and had detailed plans for the future.

Education goes far beyond job skills training and is highly regarded among participants. Subject matter includes self defense, health and wellness, domestic violence, human trafficking, financial planning and more.

Outland Denim CEO James Bartle hopes the positive data inspires the rest of the industry to follow suit.

“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. “The onus is on 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. We must remember that these are people with hopes and dreams and families.”

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But the report calls for more than just inspiration. It also encourages businesses to identify the current risks of modern slavery throughout their supply chains, and calls on governments to prioritize legislation that pushes for its eradication—and notes that, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, socially and environmentally sustainable businesses are more important than ever. Ending modern slavery is one of the key focuses, as represented in the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.

Bartle founded Outland Denim in 2008 on the basis of making fashion a “force for good.” After learning about the global human trafficking epidemic, he developed the company to employ women at risk and provide them with the skills they need to break out of the cycle of abuse.

The company has since been awarded the Thomson Reuters Foundation Stop Slavery Award for Small and Medium Enterprise, and has become Australia’s first B Corp Certified denim brand.