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Good jeans: Outland Denim is addressing the industry’s ethical issues, one pair of pants at a time

Photography By Outland Denim

James Bartle is tackling the fashion industry’s biggest ethical and environmental issues with a wardrobe staple: jeans. 

The founding CEO of Outland Denim, Bartle first entered the denim business to help fight modern slavery and sex trafficking. After learning about the illicit trade of human trafficking in 2008, Bartle travelled to Southeast Asia with a rescue agency. It was here that he faced the stark reality of the situation, seeing first-hand how young girls and women were being affected.

It became apparent that the solution needed to go beyond “rescuing”, and that’s how jeans came into the picture. Bartle was looking for ways to secure a future for exploited girls and women and provide them with employment opportunities to overcome their circumstances.

A group of five women in Cambodia headed Outland Denim’s earliest operations. As the company grew, Bartle spent the next six and half years tracking the social impact of the women’s employment to understand how it improved their lives. These findings helped the brand establish their own manufacturing facilities and develop a business model based on four major pillars: training, opportunity, a living wage and education.

“If you can give the opportunity of employment, it not only changes their life, it changes other people’s lives too.”

To ensure the brand remained true to its ethical labelling, Bartle expanded his focus from social to environmental issues in the denim industry. To lower Outland Denim’s impact, they began making jeans with organic cotton and zero chemicals. It’s been a long and expensive process, but Bartle has little doubt it has driven their overall success in the competitive denim market.

Support from high-profile individuals, like Meghan Markle, has elevated Outland Denim’s position. “We were already getting this cut-through in the market [and] growing quickly, but then Meghan Markle wore our products and just blew it up,” Bartle explains. It’s likely Markle did due diligence on the brand, and like many individuals, endorsed their products because of Outland Denim’s ethical and environmental ethos.

Customers know that when they buy a pair of Outland Denim jeans, they have changed somebody’s life as a result of that purchase and Bartle wants to use that concept to continue exploring solutions for ethical issues in the fashion industry.

“I think our solution is consumerism. One in six people work within the fashion space at some level. We’ve got to protect this industry for the sake of one in six people,” he says.

“We need a solution that gives people jobs, gives them meaning, gives them purpose, gives them employment. The result of that employment and the products that they produce has to benefit the planet.”

Being involved in the ethical fashion movement for over a decade has allowed Outland Denim to demonstrate their success to other brands in the industry. Now, Bartle wants to make ethical products accessible to more people by collaborating with other labels and entering new marketplaces. “We’ve just signed Karen Walker as the first brand that we’re producing for,” he says. “That’s the future.”

Outland Denim shifted from online-only to include retail stores a few years ago, launching with two of Canada’s best department stores, Holt Renfrew and Harry Rosen, and David Jones in Australia. They recently entered Bloomingdales and Nordstrom in the US and plan to continue expanding.

While Bartle will always be most proud of how his business can change someone’s life through employment, the opportunity to transform the industry with innovative products is equally inspiring. “If you can create the best product in the market and the by-product of that is a positive impact on people and the planet, then I get so excited about what product can actually mean,” he says. “It gives us the ability to be proud of fashion, proud of the movement and proud of the industry.”

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