September 18th, 2023
An estimated two billion pairs of jeans are made every year with significant social and environmental impact.
Outland Denim was founded in 2011 as a means to combat the illicit human trafficking trade and the fashion industry’s footprint by creating safe working conditions for vulnerable people and substantially reducing water, energy and chemical consumption in denim production.
Outland Denim is the first Australian denim brand to become a certified B corporation, and just the second globally.
No matter who you are or what you do, chances are you own a pair or two of denim jeans. Trends might come and go but jeans are one of the most ubiquitous fashion garments on the market and have proven to cut across both generations and cultures with their timeless quality.
Unfortunately, the denim industry is notorious for being one of the most environmentally damaging sectors of the fashion industry. High water usage and energy consumption are required for the manufacturing of denim products while large amounts of damaging chemicals are generally used in the washing and dyeing processes. Across the full timeline from growing the cotton through to jeans’ end-of-life there are also significant carbon emissions generated.
The founders of Outland Denim recognised these negative impacts over a decade ago, and while their primary aim in setting up the company was to provide employment for survivors of exploitation, a secondary goal of “cleaning up the dirty side of denim” was soon established.
We spoke to Erica Bartle, Head of Communications and Impact for Outland Denim, about how the brand is disrupting the denim industry one pair of jeans at a time.
“Outland Denim was designed to give employment opportunities to vulnerable young women in Cambodia who have experienced exploitation, modern slavery and human trafficking. The majority of victims of modern slavery live in Asia and the Pacific. Women and children are disproportionately vulnerable, though men make up a significant number of modern slaves, and slavery is hidden in our global supply chains.”
“Modern slavery also has links to climate change, where its risks often push people into slavery through unsafe migration driven by income loss. Conversely, modern slavery as an ‘industry’ produces high quantities of CO2, due to its common association with natural resource extraction, deforestation and ecologically damaging industries (if it were a country, modern slavery would be the third largest emitter after China and the USA for emissions).”
“At the same time, the fashion industry is guilty of gross human and environmental rights abuses. Tackling the issues on an environmental, social and governance level is critical, as is consumer awareness. We see ourselves as a Trojan Horse in an industry gone awry.”
“It’s estimated one in eight working people globally are thought to work in fashion and textile production, from growing and processing cotton to sewers constructing garments. Some estimates say one in six if you include the informal sector, including those creating synthetic or cellulosic fibres and in retail. Even though it forms a substantial part of the global working population, only two per cent receive a sufficient living wage. We believe no one should be impoverished in the making of our clothing. In fact, fashion can be the answer to vast and crucial social change: creating a cycle of freedom rather than exploitation.”
“Simultaneously, we know that fashion is one of the most wasteful industries on the planet with massive quantities of cast offs entering landfills or incinerated each year (up to 92 million tonnes globally and approximately 200,000 tonnes in Australia each year, and contributing anywhere between two and ten per cent of global emissions). Unfortunately, the charity sector ends up shouldering much of this burden.”
“We want to create a better way to “do denim” while also doing good for people. Our aim is to demonstrate that denim factories, and actually the full fashion supply chain can be humanly and environmentally harmonious under the right conditions. We are not there yet but that’s the vision.”
We are foremost a humanitarian brand, so to us, a just circular transition must consider the need for all people to have access to fruitful work with decent wages.
“We have traced all our organic cotton back to the seed and are very committed to this idea of traceability and transparency. We work closely with both our cotton farmers and the cotton mill to create visibility and ask questions like ‘where does this material come from, how was it farmed and who was it farmed by?’ This process of tracing our organic cotton supply chain was seven years in the making and required external help, partnerships with some great NGOs and tertiary institutions and a lot of relationship-building.”
“Then we established our own cut-and-sew and “wash house” facilities so we could have oversight of our total social and environmental impact. The heavy capital investment in setting up manufacturing facilities with energy and water-saving technology required the backing of some angel investors committed to the long-run vision. This also allowed other brands to come under our manufacturing umbrella and benefit from these improvements in working conditions and environmental impact. As a manufacturer of denim products for other brands (under the moniker “Maeka”), we know that brands aren’t always prepared to share the enormous green operation costs, from sourcing to manufacturing and distributing and selling. But in time we hope to see a payoff.”
“In terms of our product distribution, we send our post-production product to customers and retailers globally, so there is that CO2 element of both upstream and downstream transportation to contemplate and also to offset. Lastly, any of the product that we warehouse here in Australia that ultimately doesn’t sell or reaches the end of its “shelf life” is donated to charities such as ThreadTogether or The Good Box for distribution to their client bases.”
“Circularity is an ongoing mission for us, not something we have ’achieved’, so even the idea that this is an ongoing play can be hard to swallow. We humans like things to be tidy and finite and rational, but the Utopian view can stop us from making incremental progress. In some ways, we have found circularity challenging as a concept. We are foremost a humanitarian brand, so to us, a just circular transition must consider the need for all people to have access to fruitful work with decent wages. This is reflected by Sustainable Development Goal Eight, which aims to ’promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all’.”
“We have been tracking our progress via our impact reports for four years now. As a certified B Corporation we are also required to have certain goals and KPIs intrinsic to our business. We want to be climate-positive ultimately, giving the earth back more than we take. Waste, water usage, energy usage, chemical usage, transport, packaging and design for end-of-life are all areas of concern to us and we have made significant strides in each of them.”
“There is certainly a heightened consumer and retailer desire to be able to offer people more sustainable alternatives. This desire creates greater employment opportunities and less market share for brands who are ’carrying on as usual’ or taking a tokenistic approach to sustainability or circularity. Tanya Plibersek’s campaign around Australia’s fashion consumption and waste is also moving the needle for the industry, which means that only truly sustainable brands will remain standing! Legislation would be helpful - the fashion industry is disastrously under-legislated.”
“Find out more about our brand at outlanddenim.com and share our story if you feel inspired!”