Podcast Ep. 55, OUTLAND DENIM'S JAMES BARTLE ON FIGHTING HUMAN TRAFFICKING & CREATING POSITIVE OPPORTUNITY

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It was watching a Hollywood movie lit a fire in James Bartle’s belly, and spurred him to totally change his working life. Seven years later the former motocross rider and his wife Erica run Outland Denim. This denim label and social enterprise employs, trains and supports women in Cambodia, many of whom have been rescued from the sex trade and human trafficking. Based out of Queensland, Australia and Phnom Penh, Cambodia, they make women’s and men’s styles and sell internationally in North America and Europe.

So, what was the movie? “Taken, with Liam Neeson,” says Bartle. “Have you seen it? You must. It’s fictional but at end there are some stats to put the story in context. They explained how many people are abducted and stolen for the purposes of sex and forced labour. I still remember the impact of that – it really disturbed me.”

 According to the International Labour Organisation, the human trafficking industry is worth about $150 billion a year, and more than one fifth of victims are trafficked for sex.

Bartle travelled to Cambodia to visit a local rescue agency. “They work to find underage girls in brothels and ways of getting them out, providing them education, counselling, homes and jobs,” he says. “Erica and I wanted to do something to help and the garment industry seemed like a good place to start.” They say: “By purchasing a pair of Outland Denim jeans, a young woman is able to live free from a life of abuse and exploitation. Our jeans are “made different” not only because of how they are made, with fine attention to detail, but because of why they are made: put simply, every pair can help change someone’s life.”

This is a candid eye-opening interview about an extraordinary story. We talk about the tough stuff: Who gets trafficked, and who does the trafficking and why? Is it possible to empathise with their desperation?

We talk about materials, and how organic and reduced waste is essential to the big picture. We talk about B Corps and value-driven business, the state of ethical fashion right now, & where the industry is improving and failing. Plus there’s heaps of insights into how to set up, run and make a success of a sustainable, ethical fashion label.

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WHAT WE TALK ABOUT...

HUMAN TRAFFICKING IN CAMBODIA. “In Cambodia, women and men, children and old people alike are trafficked every day. Some are abducted and sold into forms of slavery for as little as $30. Others pay hundreds of dollars to people-smugglers who promise them a better, brighter future somewhere else. Almost all end up in precarious situations, exploited by rich and powerful trafficking lords. The stream of the human trade flows in all directions. Young girls are brought from their villages in the provinces to brothels in Phnom Penh. Elderly and handicapped people are smuggled to Thailand to work as organised beggars. The able-bodied end up as slaves working as construction workers or domestic servants. Chinese labourers are imported to Phnom Penh for sweatshop factory work. Vietnamese girls are bought to join their Cambodian sisters in the brothels.” Via The Phnom Penh Post. According to the UN, “Cambodia experiences significant internal and cross-border trafficking, and is a country of origin, transit and destination for trafficked persons. Human trafficking patterns and trends in Cambodia vary from small-scale opportunistic endeavours to large-scale organised syndicates with elaborate trafficking networks.

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MODERN SLAVERY IN FASHION. The Global Slavery Index 2018 reveals that every year Australia imports over $US4 billion worth of clothes and accessories at risk of being tainted by modern slavery. According to the report, produced by the Walk Free Foundation, “our at-risk garments are imported from China, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Brazil and Argentina.”  Modern slavery is present in garment factories in countries like Bangladesh, China and Vietnam, but extends right down supply chains through every stage of raw material production.For more on this check the show notes from Episodes 53 & 54.

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In 2021, the GLOBAL DENIM MARKET is is estimated to generate US$ 129.8 billion in retail sales. According to retail technology company Edited, the first half of 2017 saw the women’s jeans market grow by 79 percent compared to the first half of 2016. Say Business of Fashion, “brands are also capitalising on the demand for an authentic, vintage-style product.”

LONGEVITY. We don’t throw denim out at quite the rates we do fast fashion, but anyone who’s ever been to an op shop will know there’s always masses of the stuff on the charity racks. Some people hold onto their favourite jeans for years. According to VICE, “Jeans are one of the few items we tend to keep for a long time, but their environmental toll is significant. We use huge amounts of water and chemicals to make them, though steps are now being taken to mitigate the impact. But with 2 billion jeans produced annually worldwide, it's going to take a large-scale sustained effort to make a meaningful change.” How can we begin.

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ORGANIC COTTON. “Organic cotton is grown in a way that uses methods and materials that lessen the impact on our environment. A big effort in the organic movement is to use growing systems that replenish and maintain soil fertility and build biologically diverse agriculture. Organic cotton uses far less water too. The main benefit of organic materials, however, is that the crops aren’t treated with pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and Genetically Modified Organisms. These toxins are harmful for farmers and workers, us as consumers, and entire wildlife eco-systems. And yet, less than one percent of all cotton grown is organic.” Via Huffington Post 

Outland uses VEGETABLE DYES. They say: “The use of toxic synthetic indigo dye poses a major threat to environmental and human health in and near manufacturing facilities. Outland Denim addresses this issue by prioritising the use of natural indigo dyes for its denim, derived from a plant species called Indigofera. Use of natural vegetable dyes means that workers are exposed to less toxic chemicals and the likelihood or severity of water pollution is reduced, leading to an overall increase in the sustainability of our jeans. Outland ensures any non-vegetable dyes meet the Global Organic Textile Standard certification or have been tested for harmful chemicals by Oeko-Tex Standard.” Outland’s leather brand patches are vegetable tanned.

WASHING. Outland uses a washhouse in Cambodia that offers a separate organic washing facility, to ensure there is no contamination of water systems. Read more here.

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COMPETITION. “Denim jeans can be found in the wardrobes of 96% of US consumers who, on average, own 7 pairs. Despite this, jeans have lost a significant amount of retail floor space to other items like dresses and athletic pants, according to Cotton Incorporated's Retail Monitor Survey. The popularity of women's dresses has increased in the past five years, while athletic wear's presence at retail has grown, in recent years, due to its popularity as a multifunctional apparel item among men and women. More than 9 out of 10 consumers report that they wear athletic apparel for activities other than exercise. Retailers across various channels have responded to consumer demand by adding more fashionable and functional athletic clothing to their product lines, thereby reducing available floor space for jeans.

The competition that denim jeans are facing from other product categories is intensified by shoppers being disappointed about recent changes in the quality of fabric and fiber content of apparel products. The majority of consumers say that clothing purchases do not last as long (59%) and that the quality of clothing has declined from last year (52%). Almost three out of four apparel shoppers (72%) also say that clothing prices have increased since last year. Paying more for less does not meet consumers' value expectations and Cotton Incorporated's Customer Comment Research reveals that dissatisfaction with clothing quality is the highest for denim jean purchases.

Denim jeans accounted for nearly 30% of negative customer ratings-higher than any other apparel product studied. In fact, compared to all other clothing categories, customers were most likely to mention poor quality (25%), disappointment (28%), and returns made due to dissatisfaction (28%) in their denim jean reviews. Because consumers have more brand loyalty when purchasing jeans, many notice changes in jean quality and indicate feeling betrayed by their favourite brand.” Via Fibre2Fashion

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Freestyle motocross is is a variation on the sport of motocross in which motorcycle riders attempt to impress judges with jumps and stunts. Don’t try this at home.

TAKEN is 2008 movie staring Liam Neeson. “Today, a growing number of films portray a hero taking down a human trafficking ring.” This article on The Conversation provides some interesting commentary on how Hollywood portrays such things, vs. the trafficking issue in real life.

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B CORP STATUS. Outland Denim is Australia’s first denim label to become a Certified B Corporation, and the second globally. They say: '“We have never believed that your school grades equate to how you do at life, but when you roll in the realm of ethical and sustainable fashion, it’s important that you don’t fake your CV. A brand might say it’s all for the people and the planet, but is it really? Certified B Corporations are social enterprises verified by B Lab, a nonprofit organization. The B CorpTM certification is globally recognised, with 60 countries, 2,595 companies and 150 industries under the B Corporation umbrella. The certification aims to create a community of brands that meet the highest standards of overall social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability, and aspire to use the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.
To obtain B Corporation status, a company or brand must complete a comprehensive questionnaire, including substantiating evidence, followed up with a detailed interview and subsequent reviews with stringent guidelines.
The process requires a significant commitment of time and resources for both the company concerned and B CorpTM but the result is mutually beneficial - an honest and true picture of the company is presented while adding to B Corp's vision of a global movement of people using business as a force for good.  

Other B Corps include Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, Ben & Jerry’s. It’s not the first time we’ve discussed B Corps on this podcast and it won’t be the last. Check out Episode 46 with Lily Cole for more on this business model.

MOTIVATION. They say: “Unlike a typical production house, our seamstresses are schooled in using all manner of machinery, from the overlocker to the single-needle machine and bar tack, which means each of them has an appreciation for how the whole jean comes together.”

LIVING WAGE. For detail on the definition of a living wage, the ways of measuring it, and where the fashion industry stands on this, see the show notes for Episode 24: What She Makes.

 CAMBODIAN GARMENT INDUSTRY. There are approx. 800K garment workers in Cambodia. The sector is the backbone of the country’s export-driven economy and employs 86 % of all factory workers. But the sector faces threats from increasingly competitive regional neighbours, the inevitable shift to automation and the potential loss of preferential trade agreements. The minimum wage has risen from $61 in 2012 to $170 this year. It’s not just factory owners who worry that brand looking for cheap labour will pull out, causing job losses. Read more here.

Should we boycott the bad brands that pay low wages and exploit workers? No, says James. “Everyone needs to move towards this together.”

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SCORES. Outland Denim achieved the highest possible rating (A+) in the 2018 Ethical Fashion Report. The median grade of all companies is C+. The report is published yearly by Baptist World Aid’s Behind the Barcode project. They say: “The grades awarded by the Ethical Fashion Report are a measure of the efforts undertaken by each company to mitigate the risks of forced labour, child labour and worker exploitation in their supply chains. Higher grades are given to companies with labour rights management systems that, if implemented well, should reduce the extent of worker exploitation. Our research team assesses each company’s labour rights management system according to 33 specific criteria. These assessments consider three critical stages of the supply chain as a proxy for the entire supply chain: raw materials, inputs production and final manufacturing.” Search how brands other stack up here. Read media coverage here, and here.

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“It’s not charity. What we’re doing is facilitating an opportunity, but they are the ones who are making the change for themselves. That’s why I believe this is a powerful business model.” - James Bartle


A note on our MUSIC: it is by our friend Montaigne, who sang a special acoustic version of "Because I love You" just for us. It's from her album Glorious Heights.

THANK YOU FOR JOINING THE WARDROBE CRISIS CONVERSATION. WE'LL HAVE A NEW EPISODE FOR YOU EVERY WEDNESDAY. CAN YOU HELP US SPREAD THE WORD? WE'D LOVE YOU TO TELL YOUR FRIENDS & LEAVE A REVIEW IN iTUNES.

Until next time,

Clare x