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Battling trafficking one stitch at a time

27 May 2022 at 11:30 am
Jonathan Alley
James Bartle founded Outland Denim after being inspired by popular culture, but the fashion B-Corp is battling a sobering reality. Bartle is this week's Changemaker.

Jonathan Alley | 27 May 2022 at 11:30 am


Battling trafficking one stitch at a time
27 May 2022 at 11:30 am

James Bartle founded Outland Denim after being inspired by popular culture, but the fashion B-Corp is battling a sobering reality. Bartle is this week’s Changemaker.

James Bartle believes that what you wear can express more than simply “style”. 

He created Outland Denim to empower everyday people buying a pair of jeans to not only buy sustainably, but to battle human trafficking by creating employment for young women. 

There are over 40 million people in the world caught up in slavery – one in four are children, and over 71 per cent are women. Like a lot of socially conscious business people, Bartle knew that he couldn’t change everything – but he could still do something. 

After travelling extensively in South East Asia, Bartle saw the story beyond the quick media takeaway; yes there were thousands of trafficked people in the region, and it was an appalling problem, but if they were freed, what happened next? What options did they have? 

He started by employing five Cambodian seamstresses working with 100 per cent vegan, traceable denim to produce Outland’s first jeans. Since then, he’s grown the operation to 100 stand alone production houses, introducing a super-green wash and finish facility.  

In this week’s Changemaker, he tells us what inspires him to keep going.

How did you get into the job you’re in now?

In a very unconventional way. My background before Outland had absolutely nothing to do with denim or fashion. I was a freestyle moto-cross rider who also had a metal fabrication business. But I have always been entrepreneurial, and I credit my parents for demonstrating that you don’t just look out for your own, [you look ]out for opportunities to care for others also – even if it costs you. They’ve always taken in other people and tried to use what they have for the benefit of others.

My introduction to the world of human trafficking came from the film Taken, a fictional film inspired by the very real $150 billion illicit trade in human beings. After encountering an NGO doing work in the field at a music festival, I later had the opportunity to travel with them to South-East Asia and 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 learned that denim is not only one of the most challenging sectors of the fashion industry to break into, but also one of the dirtiest. So while we set out to create something 100 per cent socially sustainable, we now see the opportunity and our responsibility to help clean up the denim industry too.

What are some of the unique challenges Outland Denim faces and how do you deal with them?

Putting sustainability at the very foundations of a business model, there are naturally a lot of directions you get pulled in – water, carbon, circularity, vegan materials, supply chain transparency, worker rights – because there are a lot of issues to address in the fashion industry. The ethical sub-categories are endless but ultimately 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 its impacts on 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 while harming the planet was something we couldn’t ignore.

Along with that has come the cost of doing business ethically, and not just as a brand but as a manufacturer too. 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.

pair of jeans being made

Photo: Cesar Lopez Photography.

What are some of the things that inspire you as a leader? 

I’m inspired by leaders who can think beyond the ordinary way of doing things and that are looking to create win/win scenarios for all stakeholders in a business. I’m inspired by those willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good and put this at the front of decision making.

What advice do you have for others wanting to make a change?

Dive into the design stage of your product. Is it designed with longevity in mind? Where are the materials coming from? What are your suppliers doing to mitigate social exploitation and environmental harm? Sustainability starts with good, intentional design.

How do you share knowledge with others undertaking similar work, or learn from them?

As we return to meeting in-person I’m reminded of how powerful this is in sharing knowledge with others, so I’ve looked forward to connecting with fellow fashion brands after two years of doing things virtually (I’m at the Raw Assembly Forum in Melbourne as I type).

Outside of this context it is so critical to our mission to share our experience, learnings, and practices on every platform we can whether be it customer-facing, industry, or through a collaboration with a fellow fashion brand, because we don’t want to gate-keep the Outland model, we would love to see others be inspired to take it up.

How has working in the social change space changed the way you see the world?

Working in the social impact space has definitely impacted the way I see the world. It has opened my eyes to just how discrete social injustice can be yet how devastating to so many millions. I now also have greater conviction of the role business can play in creating positive impacts and generating a social dividend.

Jonathan Alley  |  @ProBonoNews

Jonathan Alley is opinion editor at Pro Bono Australia.

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