“Once I knew about human trafficking, I couldn’t pretend I didn’t,” Outland Denim founder and CEO James Bartle recounts.
It’s a familiar feeling to those who remain fortunately untouched by horrors that they read about in the news. It’s estimated that upwards of 27 million people worldwide are trapped in human trafficking with the average age of victims at a staggering 12 years old.
Cambodia is a known centre for trafficking, with an estimated 1.65% of the total population living in conditions of modern day slavery. Cambodia is also where James chose to begin building his jeans brand, Outland Denim, in order to counter the negative effects of the rampant trade.
“I’ve always admired the guys who put their lives on the line to actually rescue the girls out of their precarious situations on the streets and in the brothels and KTV bars,” James tells us. “I personally couldn’t see myself performing that kind of [rescue] work – I have a three-year-old girl and one on the way, and a wife at home – but I did want to support that effort in some way.”
The result was Outland Denim, a brand built on the ethos that empowering women within communities that are affected by the trafficking trade can be a catalyst for change. To help put this idea into action, the company specifically employs young women rescued from or affected by human slavery and sexual exploitation to make its premium quality denim. The effects are two-pronged: firstly, women who have previously fallen victim to the sex trade are given an opportunity to thrive again on their own terms in a supportive environment, and secondly, other women in the community avoid falling victim to the trade thanks to the creation of viable employment opportunities.
Five years in the making and launching to the public this week, Outland Denim is the result of painstakingly careful nurturing of its sewing room staff, all with the goal of creating a balanced business that gives as much focus to the creation process as to the output.
“We started out enabling the seamstress to use foot-pedal sewing machines in their home villages, and would then have the jeans couriered into the sewing room in Kampong Cham,” James explains of the early days. “Back then, each seamstress was responsible for completing a jean from start to finish.”
But the company had to pivot in order to keep growing.
“Quality assurance was obviously an issue, and so was the sense of building a team. So we decided to centralise our operations and set up a state-of-the-art sewing room and production facility.”
Now, Outland Denim has two offices in Australia and a manufacturing hub in Cambodia, resulting in an understandable level of back-and-forth travel between the two countries for both James and his Operations Manager, Leisl Lancaster.
The overriding ethical ethos of the brand, which also sends AU$50 from each pair of jeans sold to anti-trafficking agencies, was less of a choice and more of a compulsion for James.
“I don’t think you can operate in the modern world with the level of transparency that the internet affords without operating your business in a way that is above-board, or at least making an effort toward ensuring your processes and dealings are in keeping with the swing toward ethical practices,” James insists. “People want to be able to invest in businesses and brands that are making a positive contribution to the world in some way, and not just inflating the bottom line.”