“Fashion could be one of the greatest changemakers”: Outland Denim

Ethical and sustainable label Outland Denim is spreading its wings and expanding into the US through Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s in New York and California. The brand’s State of Being collection will be available in the department stores and their respective online stores from February next year.

“The likes of Bloomingdale’s have the ability to expand our impact by utilising their customer base, and their sales reflect the impact that we’re able to have. The more we can sell, the more people we can employ to offer this opportunity. Just going direct-to-consumer doesn’t make sense to us when our bottom line is people, because we’d be limited in our ability to reach a wider group of people,” founder James Bartle told Inside Retail Weekly.

“There’s a big market over there as well, people want to know who we are and it’s an epic way to into the market and align ourselves with premium retailers. It [gives us] credibility straight away – we’re on a shelf straight away and consumers trust [those retailers]. The impact of that goes beyond just the region we’re in, it goes into other regions and other retailers that might take the risk [on us]. Usually they watch you for however many seasons before taking that risk.”

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Local label Outland Denim launched in 2011 with the aim to offer employment, training and career progression for former victims of sex trafficking in Cambodia. Now, the business has more than 100 staff from varying backgrounds of vulnerability. The B Corp business also focuses on sustainable manufacturing that has a minimal impact on the environment, while also using water- and energy-reducing technology.

According to Bartle, compared to the conversations he had with retailers last year, it’s become clear that all around the world, sustainability and ethical manufacturing are now top-of-mind for large businesses. Last year, the business shifted into Canada and is now sold at department stores Harry Rosen and Holt Renfrew.

“[Big businesses] have a responsibility to look deeper into their supply chain so they need brands to lead the way in that sense and we are that [brand] for a lot of those retailers. We tick all of those boxes in that space and it’s important to offer that to the modern-day consumer who is now driven by other motivators than previous generations,” he said.

“Australian brands have some favour in the US as well, and we’ve got meaning, purpose and a story behind us, which is important. It’s an advantage that we have. We didn’t start the brand just to start a brand, we started it to make an impact, whereas brands today are moving to attach a story to themselves. There’s a big difference in both those approaches and that’s playing into our success at the moment.”

Bartle added that he is particularly sympathetic to those smaller retailers that have just discovered the atrocities behind their supply chains and are struggling to work out how to solve the problems and know where to even start.

“But I don’t think it’s the same for big brands; they are most definitely aware of the conditions of their workers around the world and it’s very obvious by some of the decisions they’ve made that they’re not so concerned about that. I’d say [customers are making] a slow progression away from those brands,” he said.

“There are enough options out there to make decisions around the brands you put on your shelf and that you personally endorse as a director of a company so you can start to make some big changes. This is how the industry will change, and if it does change, we’re in an exciting time in history.

“Fashion could be one of the greatest changemakers in the social deficit that exists in regions like where we are in Cambodia and Southeast Asia.”

Spreading the message

Locally, Bartle is focused on supporting independent boutiques to help tell customers about the purpose and story behind the brand. According to Bartle, it’s often the small owner/operator retailers that buy into brands that they believe in and are best placed to share the stories behind those products.

“We find that telling our story digitally can be quite difficult. We have quite a complex story with a lot of layers. There are a lot of brands with a simple call-to-action, like Toms’ ‘buy one, give one’. Our message is that the byproduct of buying our jeans is somebody is given living wages, training and education and all the tools they need to be successful. There’s a lot that goes into the infrastructure and it’s a difficult message to communicate. That is the business model. It’s different in that it’s designed just as the byproduct of selling a beautiful product – things can change socially for the people that make [our jeans], their families and communities. You’re also buying the most environmentally friendly product that you can buy in this space.”

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