Outland Denim Founder James Bartle explains
No-one can deny that COVID dropped like a bombshell, affecting not only the way we live but also the way we do business.
Continual lockdowns did little to boost retail confidence and we know some businesses will never recover.
However, we cannot ignore the fact that there have also been positives amidst this pandemic – particularly in the business world.
One of the most important trending conversations to come out of COVID is the need for more purpose-led businesses. And who better to talk to about that than James Bartle, Founding CEO of Outland Denim?
In what Deloitte describe as the ‘Next Normal’, values have shifted dramatically – along with employee and customer expectations.
“We believe that to be truly sustainable we need to be socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable,” James said.
“Good business is when everyone wins. Healthy workplace culture generates a return through better productivity, marketing budgets are reduced with powerful evidence-based impact stories and, particularly in the current climate, retail opportunities are boosted with the alignment between company and consumer values.”
Purpose-led business practice is rapidly growing in popularity and focuses on ensuring an organisation goes beyond profit to positively impact society.
It’s hard to believe that James’ background before Outland had absolutely nothing to do with Denim or fashion.
“I was a freestyle motocross bike 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, but 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.”
Safe, dignified employment
Outland Denim started as ‘an avenue for victims of sexual exploitation to engage in safe, dignified employment as they rebuilt their lives’.
“We have since widened our doors to accept employees from varying backgrounds of vulnerability and exploitation,” James said.
“We support our staff using the four pillars of training, opportunity, living wages, and education. Through this approach we have proven a sustainable career path is the key to lasting social change, both in the lives of our staff and their families and communities.”
The idea for Outland was born circa 2011. Fast forward a few years and James is sitting in a cafe in Cambodia with some bolts of denim, scissors and cardboard cut-outs figuring out how to piece together a top-notch pair of jeans.
“All the while people were telling me I was mad because fashion is a terrible industry to be in!”
James was determined to cross the divide between doing business and doing good.
Doing no harm
“There has been a divide because for a long time there wouldn’t have been any expectation that doing good would be within a business’s role, perhaps not until the rise of CSR and giveback or charity programs in the early 2000s,” he said.
“There is doing no harm and then there is doing good, and I think overall we have worked backwards a bit. There is a lot of focus on brand-charity partnerships – you buy, we give $1 to XYZ – which is great but often these are being done by brands who are not first looking inward at the harm that may exist within the business’ supply chain. I believe business has the power to do incredible good but first it needs to, at the bare minimum, strive to do no harm.”
“I think there is a misconception, partially formed by fashion’s dark side only recently coming to light – and partially from people’s understandable concern for local jobs, that offshore manufacturing equals unethical conditions and local manufacturing equals ethical conditions.
“But the truth is there is worker exploitation here in Australia too, and offshore manufacturing isn’t by nature unjust – it’s about the conditions those workers experience. Do they receive a living wage, are they experiencing forced labour?”
So how do we change the consumer mindset?
Building connection and empathy
“At its core, this is about building connection and empathy between makers and wearers. For a long time, this has been out of sight and out of mind – and when this is the case it makes it easy for generalisations to happen.
“But if you could know the name of the person who made your T-shirt, if you saw their face and knew maybe a little about them as a human, it doesn’t matter that you are from different countries; you would never wish for them to come into harm – particularly harm due to your purchase.
“For this reason, we feature our team members in Cambodia frequently and a thank you message from them on the inside of each garment. I also give credit to Fashion Revolution for their work in encouraging brands to be transparent in showing who made their clothes and normalising this.
“We know our seamstresses by name, and they are given support to build a brighter future for themselves and their families. They are the reason we do what we do. They are our partners in creating the beautiful products that you get to enjoy when you buy Outland Denim.”
Another misconception is that you must be a wealthy business owner to help others. Interestingly, James went down the path of crowdfunding when he launched the company.
“Outland Denim has been grateful to welcome a small number of key shareholders since 2016, but something that always interested us was equity crowdfunding, forming a brand owned by the people for the people,” he said.
Greater move towards purpose-led business
“In 2018, legislation passed allowing equity crowdfunding in Australia and so we jumped on the opportunity in partnership with Birchal. As timing would have it, the campaign launched just days prior to WHO classifying COVID a pandemic. And yet even in probably the most socially and economically uncertain period of our lifetime, we still raised $1.32m and welcomed hundreds of everyday, primarily Australians, to the Outland team. With this support we were able to open our manufacturing facilities to other brands such as Karen Walker and Spell, expanding our business and impact.”
Read that paragraph twice! Amidst the fear and uncertainty of COVID, ordinary people made the decision to get involved and help.
So, has there been a greater move towards purpose-led business since COVID?
“In a way I think so, at least in the short term, as COVID made people really slow down and consider who they want to support through this time.
“And I hope it has, as COVID has only made things even more challenging for already vulnerable people groups, so we need purpose-led business now more than ever. However, only time will tell if this sticks in the long term.”
According to Deloitte, “Purpose-driven companies witness higher market share gains and grow three times faster on average than their competitors, all while achieving higher workforce and customer satisfaction.”
So those businesses that say they would like to help others but it’s all about the bottom line, might like to reconsider.
Existing beyond just the financial
Put very simply, ‘Purpose’ is an organisation’s reason for existing beyond just the financial. Sounds simple enough but what advice would James give to someone looking to make the change?
“There are going to be a lot of directions you will get pulled in – water, carbon, zero waste, vegan materials; the ethical sub-categories are endless but if you try to do everything at once, you probably won’t get out of the gate.
“My recommendation would be to start by looking at living wages and transparency of your supply chain and building really good like-minded connections here. Again, focusing on doing no harm before doing good.”
So, what’s ahead for James and Outland Denim?
Tackling textile waste
“In 2022, we are focused on tackling the issue of textile waste through innovation. According to the Australian Circular Textile Association, it’s estimated that 800,000 tonnes of textiles are sent to landfills each year in Australia alone. Slowing our consumption may help, but we fear it won’t be a fast enough solution.
“This is why we are investing in the development of new textile waste technology. So far, we have proven in a lab – as well as a small-scale commercial pilot test – that we are able to take a range of textile fibres and break them down in a way that is safe for planet and people. The next step is to test this technology on a larger commercial scale to better understand its scope and the fibres it can break down.
“Our vision is to take textiles that cannot be recycled, textile scraps from production, unfixable post-consumer clothing, and garments that were not in appropriate condition for thrift stores to sell and dispose of them in a way that is a) environmentally safe and b) does not disrupt communities, all while putting Australia on the map as a leader in this space.”
If, as a business, you’re still wondering what’s in it for you, take note. A recent survey by Republic of Everyone asked a cross section of Australians what they were most concerned about. The top answers were NOT COVID; they were climate change, plastic waste and out oceans.
Another study by the Zeno Group found that Australian consumers are four times more likely to buy from purpose-driven brands.
In addition, 89% of Australian consumers were more likely to support a brand making a profit if they have a positive impact on the world, and 88% seek out brands with a strong purpose.
To find out more about Outland Denim’s story – or to make a purchase – see https://www.outlanddenim.com.au/