Entrepreneur of the Week: Outland Denim CEO, James Bartle, on the Importance of Business with Integrity
The realities of fast fashion on the environment and the lives of millions of factory workers who produce copious amounts of clothing has become increasingly more visible. Of the many brands dedicating themselves to being trailblazers of change is Outland Denim, emerging as a giant.
Built on tradition, the fashion industry is based on preservation and prestige. It may be for this reason that the harmful practices of the industry have been able to function with little disruption despite our constantly evolving world. Sustainable fashion has become a buzz phrase with fast brands like H&M, NIKE and Zara declaring and releasing sustainable lines and products. While every effort helps what the fashion industry truly needs to rectify the decades of damage caused by waste and processing methods is a complete systematic overhaul.
Led by CEO, James Bartle, Outland Denim has set itself apart from every brand on the market today by leading through example. Self defined as the ‘people’s brand’ Outland Denim has intertwined sustainability, whether that be socially, environmentally, or economically into the fabric of the company. Committing itself to employing women and men who are former victims or have been impacted by sex trafficking, the mission is to provide them with livable wage and resources so that they do not fall into the devastating trafficking industry.
This month, Outland Denim announced they will be implementing a new equity crowd-funding campaign. Traditionally unheard of in fashion, this gives consumers of Outland Denim the chance to invest as partners in sustainable fashion. Having recently launched at Nordstrom and Bloomingdales investors are able to on-board at a time of substantial growth while knowing they are making a sizeable difference by becoming involved.
Following the formal release, Bartle spoke with Bay Street Bull about his dedication to making social action an integral pillar in business.
How did Outland Denim come to be…what starting this sustainable clothing venture was like?
Outland Denim’s story began about 10 years ago when my wife and I saw the movie ‘Taken’. While a fictional film, it was an introduction to an industry that exists today, where people are stolen and sold for profit. As we began to research, we soon discovered the complexity of the problem and its prevalence all over the world. I had the opportunity to travel through Southeast Asia, where I saw what the problem looked like on the ground. We discovered that in addition to sex trafficking, trafficking for labour was also a common threat within vulnerable communities. We learned that once a woman has been reintegrated into the community, a sustainable career path is vital for securing her future. Outland Denim was founded to offer that sustainable career path. Today we welcome employees from varying backgrounds of vulnerability and social injustice to elevate people into prosperity. Each of our employees receive living wages alongside other opportunities to provide security and nurture career growth. Along the way we have learned denim is not only one of the most challenging segments of the fashion industry to break in to, but also one of the dirtiest. So while we set out to create something 100% socially sustainable, we now see the opportunity and feel it is our responsibility to help clean up the denim industry by way of sustainable production.
What questions did you ask yourself before building this company? What was the goal you wanted to achieve with this brand?
Outland Denim has always existed to answer the question, how to correct the atrocity of the $150 billion human trafficking industry. As we have grown, that question is still very much the foundation of our brand and our direction. But now we also ask ourselves, how can business, and in particular the fashion industry, be the solution to some of the greatest social and environmental issues we face today – issues that this industry has in large part historically contributed to?
How has the stand alone washing and finishing facility changed things and what can a system like this do to improve the whole fashion industry?
The washing and finishing process of making a jean is conventionally extremely bad for the environment in terms of water, energy, and chemical usage. Opening our very own wash and finishing facility last year meant that we now have greater control over our environmental footprint, and can now offer even more employment opportunities! This facility is equipped with industry-leading water and energy reducing technology such as Laser, Ozone, and E-Flow; it really represents a new standard of sustainability and has given us the ability to truly be the leader in sustainable denim… Using these state-of-the-art finishing techniques, we create premium finished denim washes that customers love to wear with significantly less impact on the environment.
Outland denim has always defied the beaten path with its business model. What made you look into and install this crowd-funding method?
We have always seen ourselves as ‘the people’s brand’. Now we have the opportunity to give back to our customers and our community with their ability to own part of Outland Denim. It was only in 2018 that legislation passed in Australia making this approach to raising capital possible. We are now in a position where we see incredible growth potential for our brand, and so we knew it was the perfect time to open up this opportunity.
How does this impact Outland Denim in terms of funding and infrastructure?
We’ve spent the formative years of Outland Denim building the brand, infrastructure and a unique impact-focused business model. Now we have the opportunity to extend our impact, particularly in the manufacturing arm of our business, by making garments for other brands. In fact we have already had interest. For us it’s simple, the more we can grow, the more people and communities we can positively impact.
How is this model disrupting the status quo for fashion brands? What are the pros of this method?
We disrupt the status quo by putting purpose at the heart of the business; it’s not an after-thought, or a marketing campaign.
An increase in awareness surrounding the working conditions of garment workers, as well as the harmful impact fashion has on the environment, has made consumers cautious of brands. With this comes an increase in consumers’ desire to support and purchase from brands that are going good in the world. We recognize transparency is key in building this trust with customers, who are eager to support brands that mirror not only their style but their values, too.
How do you cultivate an environment and ecosystem where people will feel empowered and have a purpose? How has this bled into the work that you do with women disenfranchised women?
We really try to create a company culture based on integrity, honesty, honour, generosity, and excellence. We don’t help people by pitying them, or by ‘rescuing’ them. What we do is give them the tools they need to succeed; these being opportunity, a living wage, training, and education. Our staff empower themselves, and in doing so, their families and communities benefit also… Our customers love finding and reading the note found inside the pocket lining of each garment, which is from one of the women who has made their jeans. It is a great reminder of the positive impact they have had on another person’s life, simply by purchasing and wearing a pair of jeans.
And for us, exploitation should never be in fashion. Consumers should know who made their clothes, and how they were made.