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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Butler-Madden

How Outland Denim empowers vulnerable women through jobs, training and opportunity...

In October 2018, on an official royal visit to Australia with her husband Prince Harry, Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex stepped out in a pair of elegant, black, high-waisted stovepipe jeans. The jeans were from a small Australian denim company called Outland Denim; the model she wore was called the Harriet.

The impact on a business of a stylish royal wearing your label can’t be understated, but in the case of Outland Denim, the impact wasn’t limited to the business. There is a very special story behind this business which I’d like to share with you....


Rewind ten years from the day the Duchess donned the Harriet.

James Bartle was a freestyle motocross rider. In 2008, James went to the cinema with his wife. The movie they saw was Taken starring Liam Neeson. This movie opened James’ eyes to the world of human sex traf- ficking and modern slavery.

He was outraged and deeply shocked. He couldn’t believe what was happening and as he started to research what is a billion-dollar industry, he learned more about the threat that sex trafficking and trafficking for labour posed to vulnerable communities and their families. He accepted an invitation from an anti-trafficking group to travel to Southeast Asia as an ambassador. There he saw the problem firsthand. He saw a young girl for sale and that was the moment his life changed, because in that moment, he knew that he wanted to fight for girls like that.

Outland Denim was then founded in 2011. It combined James’ love of denim with the fire in his belly to act against the sex-trafficking industry. That action took shape as providing a sustainable job to victims who had been rescued and reintegrated into the community – a job that is vital to securing their future.

Initially started as a non-profit organisation in Cambodia, the brand switched to a for-profit model in 2016, in order to accept investment.

The aim of the business was to give victims of trafficking a place to learn new skills, start afresh and support their families without fear.

It’s worth noting that the jeans market is worth $66 billion globally and the human trafficking industry is worth $150 billion in comparison. Sobering facts, right?

The business is headquartered in Australia and has a training and production facility in Cambodia, where it invests in the personal devel- opment and wellbeing of its employees.

What started as an avenue for victims of sexual exploitation to engage in safe, dignified employment as they rebuilt their lives, has since widened to accept employees from varying backgrounds of vulnerability and exploitation.

It takes two to three years to train a seamstress at Outland Denim, and staff are trained in every element of the jeans-making process. Over this time, trainees enrol in a program of cross-training and upskilling to gain a deep knowledge in the areas of cutting, finishing and sewing. Many staff progress to support and managerial roles.

A living wage ensures workers have enough income to afford a decent standard of living; cover necessary expenses such as food, housing, healthcare, education and discretionary items; and allow them to save for unexpected events. For many staff, this level of financial security is freedom in itself.

Staff participate in education and personal enrichment programs to support them and their families. Education programs include budgeting, women and infant health, computing skills, human trafficking awareness, English and self-defence.

Since its launch, over 750 people including staff and their household members have benefited from Outland Denim’s unique employment model.

Inside Outland Denim garments, customers will find labels with notes like this one from the women who were involved in the production of the garment:

Thank you from Rom Chang. Before I worked at Outland Denim, my family and I had a lot of debt. It was difficult to plan for our future. Now, I am debt free! And I am able to sponsor my nephew to go to school. My strength comes from my children. I want them to have the opportunity to study and have a better life. #MadeOnPurpose #ZeroExploitation

Beyond its work fighting human exploitation, Outland Denim is also working to counter the negative impact that conventional jeans manufacturing has on the environment. Raw materials for every button, stitch, zip and pocket are sourced from suppliers that champion social and environmental responsibility.

In keeping with this ideology, in 2020 the brand released AMY, the world’s most sustainable denim wash. The AMY jean uses 67 per cent less water, 46 per cent less energy and 83 per cent less chemicals and has 77 per cent less worker impact than conventional vintage-wash jeans.

It’s no surprise that the world is going a little nuts over Outland Denim. The Meghan Markle effect certainly gave the brand millions of dollars in free publicity, which raised its profile globally. The brand was picked up by Nordstrom and Bloomingdales in the US and went onto outsell some huge household-name brands.

But it’s the combination of the brand’s stylish elegance, the story of why it was founded and the ongoing social and environmental impact that the business is creating, that makes it such a potent and compelling story and an inspiration to other businesses.

You can have a listen to my interview with James Bartle on the For Love & Money Podcast here...

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