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Designer denim doing good

The film Taken starring Liam Neeson may be fictional but its subject matter – human trafficking – is very real.

A study from the United Nations’ International Labour Organization estimated 3.8 million adults and 1 million children were victims of forced sexual exploitation in 2016 globally, and 99 per cent of those were women and girls.

Former Australian freestyle motocross rider James Bartle was deeply affected by the 2008 film. “At the end of the film a script came up saying that human trafficking was still happening and to me that was a mind-blowing concept. The fact that human beings are still traded today and that it is a $150 billion industry. I thought if that is the reality we need to do something about it,” says Bartle.

The opportunity presented itself at a motocross show where he was approached by rescue organisation Destiny Rescue who were looking for supporters and ambassadors. They offered Bartle the opportunity to come and see what they did. He travelled to Thailand with them and saw stuff he couldn’t “unsee”. “I saw this little girl. It was a life changing moment and it’s very confronting for me to think about her – you know, what awaited her. She was scared and intimidated, and if you see that, you can’t turn away.”

His solution, to launch organic denim brand Outland Denim, may seem a bit left field at face value, but since 2011 Outland Denim has offered formerly enslaved or exploited young women training and employment pathways.

“You think rescuing is the answer but it’s not the whole answer to solving the problem, it’s the band aid. I wanted to get back to the root of the issue. It’s an economic problem,” says Bartle. “If we’re more conscious about what we spend our money on as consumers, those decisions are what’s going to change the world.”

Outland Denim founder James Bartle is changing lives for the better one pair of jeans at a time, as well as doing his bit for the environment. Photography Amy Higg

Now with more than 80 employees, Outland’s Cambodia-based production house has since evolved to equip women in positions of varying vulnerability, including those leaving exploitative situations within garment factories, those with physical disabilities and those who have been trafficked for labour.

Alongside educational and personal advancement initiatives and a living wage, Outland assists in rebuilding its employees’ futures by providing in-house training and career progression.

“Unlike a standard garment factory, where a worker’s job is restricted to sewing on a sleeve, our seamstresses are trained in every element of the process. Over a period of approximately two years, our trainee staff enrol in a programme of cross-training and upskilling in the areas of cutting, finishing and sewing. With demonstrated proficiency, our seamstresses are given the opportunity to progress their careers to managerial roles,” he says.

One employee who was able to break the cycle, has now managed to buy a home for her family (previously they lived under a plastic sheet) and she was able to buy her sister back from a man who owned her.

Bartle tears up talking about it. “That was three years into the business. We’re nine now and we’ve got so many more stories.”

Meghan Markle has also helped the business inadvertently and Bartle “badly wants to hug her”. Sales for Outland Denim jeans rocketed in 2018 when Markle wore a pair on her visit to Australia with Harry. “I wouldn’t be able to hug her without crying,” admits Bartle. “She just doesn’t know what she did but she did way more than spike sales. The result was we were able to hire 46 more women from vulnerable backgrounds.”

Leonardo Di Caprio has also organically helped through creating brand awareness by wearing the jeans. Most recently Karen Walker collaborated with Outland to create an Outland Denim x Karen Walker six-piece limited-edition collection. “Collaborations like this with Karen Walker have allowed us to have the elevation,” says Bartle. “If it wasn’t for the likes of Karen Walker we would really struggle. It brings us up into a level we wouldn’t have had any exposure [in] otherwise so these kinds of opportunities for us are honestly game-changing.”

For Bartle it’s about leading people into a better way. William Wilberforce is an earthly hero of Bartle’s for what he gave up and sacrificed on his quest for the abolition of slavery. “I feel like it’s easily glossed over what that guy gave up. A completely imperfect guy, but passionate and committed to create change to an injustice that was rife in his culture. And today it is a bigger problem than it was then,” he says. “Today, to change this all we need to be able to do is just think about where we spend. Will you spend $20 on something where you can be pretty confident that someone’s enslaved as a result? Or spend it somewhere where you can be confident that they haven’t.”

James Bartle on the job with Outland Denim workers in Cambodia. Photography Sophie Barker

Like Wilberforce, Bartle is kept awake at night by the pressure of continuing what he has created with so many relying upon the success of Outland Denim and he admits he has never experienced “anxiety like this” before. “This takes you to a place where you start to question, how far will I go? What’s the sacrifice I’m prepared to pay to see this social change happen? It’s a confronting question because it starts to bring everything into account. Especially when you have your own family who have sacrificed so much for this.”

His belief is in the ripple effect. If you can change one person’s life and can educate them in the process, you can give them everything they need to be successful.

“Success breeds success and education breeds education, and all of a sudden the issue in one generation is eradicated.”

Outland Denim is made from sustainably produced premium organic cotton. It also uses laser technology, which doesn’t require water, plus E Flow nanobubble technology, which leads to a 95% reduction in water usage during production and 65% less chemicals.

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