When Australian label Outland Denim was founded in 2011, they had a specific mission: to help eradicate poverty through the vehicle of fashion. Almost ten years later, the brand has unraveled to embrace all kinds of social change and has sharpened their humanitarian focus more than ever. Outland Denim's Head of Advocacy and Alliances Sally Townsend dropped into an online seminar with our fashion students to reveal their three secrets to running a sustainable business in the modern age.
Avenues for training, employment and career progression for exploited people has been at the heart of Outland Denim's goal from the beginning. While the company started with women exploited in the sex industry, since then they've expanded to anyone who has suffered under human rights abuses, even in the garment industry.
"With no skills and under social shame, it's incredibly difficult for them, even after rescue, to have any sort of life. We want to provide a solution to that problem," Sally explains. "We employ people that don’t have skills—some might do, but many come unskilled—we pay them a living wage right from the time they come to us."
Sally says this wage can also be crucial during crises like the current COVID-19 situation, and with savings, they are no longer in an extremely vulnerable position when a crisis comes as they have a "couch in a difficult circumstance".
A holistic education is crucial to building empowerment in exploited communities, and Outland Denim starts by providing training not just in jean-making, but also financial literacy, health lessons, self-defence, and more.
"It’s so positive because not only do those learnings benefit the individuals, but they then go and spread that information to the broader community," Sally says.
Despite it being a key pillar of Outland Denim's philosophy, transparency has long been an issue in the clothing industry, with 63% of the largest 150 fashion brands not publishing their tier ones so they have no idea who suppliers are. Sally asks if you don't know where things are coming from, how can you regulate how people or the environment is being treated?
"We are a vertically integrated brand so we own our tier one, we have great relationships without tier two, and we can access tier 3 as well. We know right down to the cotton farms, who our suppliers are and how they’re being treated," she says.
Because of this, they've found extra ways to generate profits during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite previously relying heavily on wholesale purchases which have significantly decreased over the last few months. Using their Cambodian production facilities, Outland Denim will allow brands to produce in their Cambodian facilities, Maeka.
"Because we own our means of profit, it means we can create for other brands. We’re going to be working with Karen Walker and her goods which is really exciting."
Positive global change doesn't just come from affecting social issues, but also environmental ones. Sally says the two are always interlinked, and you cannot address one without the other.
"Clothing and textiles is the 2nd most polluting industry in the world, and at its current rate, the garment industry will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. Whenever any environmental degradation occurs, it is always the most vulnerable who are most affected."
With this in mind, Outland Denim have rigorous standards when it comes to their environmental impact, using organic cotton, vegetable dyes, and owning their own wash house. Sustainable technologies like e-flow may be costlier to manage, but it's worth it in the long-term.
Stengel 50 found that purpose-driven companies saw a return over 400% on the stock market than the S&P 500, and millennials especially are willing to spend more for a sustainable brand. Following the COVID-19 crisis, Sally thinks there will a huge shift in how the fashion industry sees consumption as we are forced to reign back purchases.
"We see ourselves and our business model in a unique position moving out of this crisis to lead the way in how fashion can absolutely be a force for incredible positive transformation, instead of being an agent of exploitation."