22 Oct Soul Chats with Outland Denim
Name: James Bartle
Origin: Tamborine Mountain, Queensland
Tell us the story of Outland Denim, how did it come to be?
As a newlywed couple, my wife and I saw a film called Taken, which featured Liam Neeson as the father of a teenage girl who was tricked into a human trafficking ring and forced to sexually exploit herself. I walked out of that movie with our friends with my eyes opened – I had no idea that that sort of thing was happening. A few years later I encountered an NGO doing work on the field, and I travelled with them to Thailand to witness how the trade operates at the street level. It was there that I saw a very young girl, not much older than my nieces, on the street looking terrified, and I was told it was probably her first night. That young girl would have had to endure absolutely horrible things. Things that my nieces would never have to endure because they had food on their plates and a safe home. So that seemed like an unjust situation to me – that these young women would have no other choice but to be sold for sex because their families couldn’t make ends meet, or because they had been tricked into thinking they would find work in a hotel as a cleaner by someone with an ulterior motive. So, to cut this long story short, short of becoming a sniper or rescuer, which I felt I could not do, I decided to set up Outland to do two things: training and employ young women who had been trafficked or sexually exploited in jean making in order to provide them with a sustainable career path in the garment industry that would act as a protective factor from them being re-trafficked, as well as offering that same lifeline to at-risk and vulnerable women who might find themselves at the behest of traffickers or the sex trade and had no options.
Why is sustainability so important to you?
While we were first and foremost about making a social impact through the provision of training and employment and a safe work environment for a group of very vulnerable young women, we soon grew to see that you simply cannot separate the social and the environmental.
Some of the world’s most vulnerable communities and people groups are at the wrong end of the food chain as far as the environment is concerned, and they are affected negatively by what big business does, completely unbeknownst to them.
It’s a sort of Darwinian, survival-of-the-fitted Capitalist set-up whereby the industrialised, big-money economies are saying, “We run the world and we will plunder your resources and take advantage of your people to ensure we can fatten the bottom line”, and then the leaders of the developing economies have to sort of turn a blind eye, or are otherwise see the dollar signs, and comply. And the system sucks, because so many people lose out so we can have the cheap goods to keep up with the trends. But the sad thing is that we have lost the true value of things: of craftsmanship, of people, and of the idea of having a few things rather than a thousand things. We are greedy and built up on this false economy of insecurity whereby we are made to feel inadequate so we need the new thing.
So, of course, all this greed leads to waste on the part of the consumer, and to environmental damage through over-production of goods that are not dispersed fairly throughout the world, and also to a sort of deficit of the human spirit, because we are just mindlessly buying things without really appreciating them or where they came from or who made them. It is all linked.
The three trillion-dollar fashion industry is one of the most resource and labour intensive industries in the world, and the denim industry is notorious for its environmental record.
The more we thought about our social impact, we could no longer separate the need to be “clean” environmentally. So what we try to do is produce the most sustainably made jean by using organic and recycled cotton/denim, by utilising only raw materials that are sustainable, and by doing our best to minimise environmental impact in the area that we produce, which is a provincial part of Cambodia, which also happens to be a country that is still very much dependent on agriculture and subsistence farming.
There’s been a lot of media in recent months around ethically sourced clothing – tell us what being ethical means to you?
It is the soul of everything we do, to sort of elevate the standard of business practise and how we look at our staff and our production in a way that celebrates their innate human dignity and doesn’t denigrate it. For our seamstresses, this means paying them a living wage, ensuring they have a safe and happy work environment, providing life skills and giving them a sense of the worth of their craft and time and talents and skills – it’s very important that people who have suffered self-esteem issues to the extreme have that sense that work can be a driver of your sense of purpose; but more than that they also see that they can be the difference for the next girl, too. So for our seamstresses, working for Outland is an ethical choice in itself. The same goes for our Cambodian management, and senior staff. They could work elsewhere, but they choose to work for Outland because of the ethics behind the brand.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in setting up Outland Denim?
There have been so many. Doing business in Cambodia isn’t easy – the seasons, the calendar year, the cultural differences, the language barriers, the time differences, the distance…it all adds up to a less than ideal environment to grow a business. But all these things have made us really strong as a brand – we have never taken the easy road, so I feel that only strengthens what we have to offer. We know our stuff. We have done the hard yards. We are here for good.
How about your most high-fiving, fist-pumping, hooray, killing it at business moment so far?
I don’t know that we can boast about anything yet, but there have been some great moments, such as securing investors who really believe in and back the brand so we could scale the business, requests for our jeans from some pretty prominent people (one actress in particular caught us by surprise, but we can’t reveal who that is)…but aside from those more superficial aspects, what gets me first pumping is walking into our production house, seeing the beaming smiles, and hearing the stories of how Outland has in some way turned so many of those women’s lives around.
What are you working on right now?
We are launching into the USA. USA, USA! As far as production goes, there are a few new cuts on the horizon. As far as the business goes, we have employed a dedicated Social Impact and Supply Chain Officer, which we feel is fundamental.
Tell us your favourite way to spend a day off?
Probably just at home with my wife and daughters, watching Landline on the TV at noon, maybe a BBQ and some friends in the afternoon.
Describe your family in 5 words.
Dedicated, loyal, cheeky, clever, female (I’m outnumbered three to one).
What’s your mantra in life?
I don’t have a mantra but I do try to do unto others as I would to myself.
Random fact about you – go!
I have hammer thumbs.
Something you cannot live without?
My family – my job takes me away from them too often.
What is your inspiration – either at work or in life more generally.
It’s actually some of the women we work with Cambodia, and one in particular who has a disability; she is severely disabled, but whenever I walk into the sewing room she has a massive smile on her face. She is just so grateful to be there.