How this fashion retailer achieved success – and sustainability

And why the founders believe that fashion retailers need to consider following suit

The days of measuring a company’s success purely by its financial profitability are over, states Outland Denim CEO James Bartle.

“I don’t think a brand has a place in the market anymore if it doesn’t solve a problem,” he argues. 

It’s a bold statement – and potentially a daunting one to new fashion retailers. However, Bartle is a strong believer that it’s essential to consider the impact of your business in order to gain cut-through in a competitive market. 

It’s an approach that’s certainly worked for Outland Denim, which creates sustainable denim, produced by survivors of sex trafficking. Today, the brand is stocked around the world, including at David Jones and THE ICONIC in Australia; is beloved by celebrities; and employs 100 people.

“Traditionally what we’ve been taught is that we measure the [financial] bottom line, but it’s a triple bottom line: it’s social, it’s environmental, it’s economic,” says Bartle, who explains that consumers are increasingly concerned about brands’ impact on the world.

The seed for Outland Denim was sown in 2008 when Bartle, who was then a freestyle motocross rider, went to see the movie Taken with his wife, and was exposed to the horrors of human trafficking for the first time.   

“I remember being completely outraged and I didn’t even realise that it was a possibility in this day and age,” he says. “It just showed how ignorant I was.” When the opportunity to travel to Asia as an ambassador for an anti-trafficking group presented itself through his riding, Bartle jumped at it. 

“It was on that trip I saw a young girl for sale, and it was definitely the life-altering moment that I needed because I just knew that I wanted to fight for them,” he says. 

“It was definitely the life-altering moment because I just knew that I wanted to fight for them”

- James Bartle, Outland Denim

Initially Outland Denim, then The Denim Project, operated as a not-for-profit in Cambodia. Since then, 750 people including staff and their household members, have benefited from Outland Denim's unique employment model. In 2016, the brand switched to a for-profit model in order to accept investment, and gained coveted B Corp status, which signifies that it meets the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.

Bartle recommends applying for B Corp status to other brands who are looking to follow a similar path. 

“It’s a pretty cool process because it shows your weaknesses as well,” he says. 

Outland is also ranked “great” on the influential ethical shopping directory Good On You.

Bartle admits that it was a long road to launching the brand, especially considering he knew little about making jeans. In the early years they relied on donations and Bartle’s metal fabrication business to fund the company. 

“We’ve had tens of millions of dollars of publicity that we’ve not paid for and that’s because we’re a brand that actually cares.”

- James Bartle, CEO, Outland Denim

In 2018 Meghan Markle wore Outland Denim on her visit to Australia, a media moment that generated millions of dollars in free publicity, and saw the brand picked up by Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s in the US.

“We hit the floor at Nordstrom and in those first weeks before COVID we outsold many of the brands that we all know as household names,” says Bartle. “It’s insane to me that our little brand could get this cut-through and success.” 

As a profit-for-purpose brand, Bartle admits that the business does “take a smaller margin on certain things”, saying that “we have a group of investors who take more than one measure of what profitability looks like.”

However, the brand’s social impact credentials have also generated opportunities. “We’ve had tens of millions of dollars of publicity that we’ve not paid for and that’s because we’re a brand that actually cares,” he says. 

“Your product needs to speak for itself as well – it can’t be a charity purchase.”

- James Bartle, CEO, Outland Denim

Like many retailers, Outland has been affected by COVID-19. “It’s hurt and it’s been highly challenging for us in the loss of wholesale,” he says. “And when I say loss it’s not an entire loss, we are making wholesale sales but they’re right down from where they were. Revenue is down on that side of the business but then revenue is up, but not to the same extent, on direct sales.”

Since COVID, Bartle has begun focusing on direct-to-consumer selling (“I employed a head of digital straightaway”) and it’s paying off with a 36 per cent growth in online sales since April. 

He is also investing in elevating the design of the product itself, saying that although a brand’s sense of social responsibility is important, it can’t be the only selling point.

“Everyone, when you tell them the story, wants to help… but your product needs to speak for itself as well – it can’t be a charity purchase,” says Bartle. “We’ve two designers now and an assistant designer,” he adds, saying that the move is paying off with a recent drop selling out within two weeks – a milestone that hasn’t occurred since Markle famously wore the brand.

He says that Afterpay has “definitely increased our sales as well because you’re bringing in people who would not otherwise be able to purchase. It makes it more accessible.”

Bartle says that anyone looking to launch a socially conscious brand should feel confident that there is a market.

“The Nordstroms of the world are looking for this; they know what’s going to sell and they’re looking for brands that have genuine impact,” says Bartle. “We are one of those brands but your product needs to match it, and if your product doesn’t match your story, you’re not going to get sales.” 

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Written by
Alice Wasley
Alice Wasley is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Daily Telegraph.
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