Lay of the Outland: How an Aussie ethical denim company captured investors’ hearts and minds

Erica Bartle is passionate about workers’ rights. You can feel it in the way she writes. As the co-founder of Outland Denim – a young and global fashion brand worn by celebrities such as Meghan Markle and stocked in stores such as Nordstrom – she’s at the forefront of an industry riddled with corruption and, more recently, disruption.

For any kind of fashion label – from the fast variety to high-end luxury – Outland Denim’s growth is impressive. But to do it while making and keeping serious commitments to ethical labour, low environmental impact and pioneering new technology, shows the brand has earnt its accolades.

At Outland Denim, Bartle heads up communication, research and strategy. That’s given her a lead role in a recent equity crowdfunding drive for the brand, alongside her usual duties as a co-founder as well as being a full-time mum.

Here, Bartle talks about hitting $1m in equity crowdfunding, the challenges of managing a complex, global fashion supply chain and what’s next for the brand.

Q: You’re the co-founder of a global ethical brand as well as a full-time mum to two (soon to be three) energetic children. What’s a day in the life of Erica Bartle look like at the moment?

A: It’s chaotic, to say the least! Like most mums, my kids have been the priority during COVID-19, which has meant homeschooling and providing enough stimulation at home to keep us all from going stir-crazy, turning to the TV and sibling squabbling (I’m failing on all three fronts almost daily but trying!). We are blessed to live on an amazing property on Tamborine Mountain where the kids can roam out of doors, and also have a very close-knit family in proximity, so I’ve grown to appreciate our circumstances even more. Work has to fit in around everything else.

You recently ran a crowdfunding campaign for Outland Denim’s new initiative The People’s Brand, what’s that all about?

Ah, it’s still going! In fact, there are just seven days left for people to invest here. Equity crowdfunding has always been a part of our vision, as it allows our customers, family, friends and the wider community to take part ownership in the company – they can invest from as little as $250 but as much as they want to. We have been supported by these very people from the get-go, so it seemed very right to allow them to jump on board in a more official capacity while encouraging the conversation around values-based investing. Our angel and more seasoned investors have helped us to scale in immeasurable ways, and with this new investment we will be able to invest more into our e-commerce business, sales and marketing (which haven’t traditionally been our main areas of expense), our manufacturing operations, and grow our customer base and customer engagement while we face the challenges posed to the wholesale fashion model by COVID-19. In turn, our investors get to help us grow, make a difference and access some pretty cool insider perks along the way.

How did it feel to hit the $1 million mark for The People’s Brand campaign well before its end date?

Amazing! We were the fastest equity raise on the best performing platform (Birchal) in history, and this amidst a global economic turndown! It just proved to us that people want to back business with purpose at their core.

What does this funding mean for Outland Denim and the new initiative? It means we get to continue to employ some amazing women at our factory in Cambodia, to grow the business through a time of crisis, and to help set a precedent for the direction the fashion industry should be moving in post-COVID.

A lot of brands argue that they can’t afford to pay living wages while having a viable business model – Outland Denim has disproved this theory (and some!) and is now scaling that and making it available to other brands. Why do you think some brands still have their heads in the sand over living wages?

It’s complicated and hard to implement, would be my short answer. For us, as an SME with our own manufacturing operations, we absolutely get to set the agenda for the employment, conditions, training and wages of our staff. That has become a unique selling point in an industry that has for too long denied or ignored that there are serious structural and humanitarian issues in the global supply chain. COVID-19 has brought all of this to the fore (and then some!).

For the larger fashion companies with messy supply chains, the idea of implementing living wages is just monumentally hard – we know that no multinational brand or retailer currently claims to pay its garment workers a wage they can actually subsist on. If you look at a company like H&M, well, they have about 2,000 suppliers representing numerous countries with different wage and employment laws and political dynamics at play. That is a very complex supply chain to manage. We know that it’s not good enough to say “too hard” – the right to a fair wage is enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But this is non-binding.

So then you’re left with the choice of retreating from a country with a poor human rights record and leaving their workers in dire straits, or working in-country, in partnership with unions and workers and NGOs to affect the change. That takes time. Consumers are also impatient when it comes to change; they want to see it NOW! Bottom line is, global businesses should not be exploiting countries that support the working impoverishment of their own people for profit; they should be helping to lift the goals and the standard of living; to raise the bar.

I think that perhaps the will is there, but the know-how has been lacking and the financial and human resource needed to achieve those goals has perhaps not been a main budgetary concern. There are many well-meaning, highly intelligent but tokenistic CSR people working in corporations banging their heads against walls daily and dying on the inside of frustration. For our own supply chain manager (our inhouse Social and Environmental Impact Manager), there have been many obstacles along the way tracking beyond the first-tier (i.e. our own factories), for example. Getting to the farms, the mills… this all costs money and time.

But organisations like the ILO’s Better Work program, Oxfam, Clean Clothes Campaign, Baptist World Aid and other NGOs are ready and willing to help companies get on board with the living wage program. It just takes the “political will” and resources from the top. It has to be a top-down directive: if the company’s leadership is more concerned with the bottom line and is prepared to call the bluff of the not-so-concerned, or naive, price-before-ethics consumer (ahem, Arcadia Group!), then the change won’t happen. That’s why the consumer has so much power – money talks!

Sustainability is a journey for all brands and it’s great to watch Outland Denim go from strength-to-strength on that front. What have been some of the biggest challenges in managing sustainability in your supply chain and how have you overcome them?

There are still challenges! We certainly aren’t a perfect company, but we are absolutely purpose-driven in our approach to how we conduct our business. What we do is rather than exploit the most vulnerable for their labour, we say, “Hey, what if we could actually uplift these people through the provision of living wages, training, education and career progression opportunities?”. That should be the benchmark, not the exception. As for the suppliers we work with, we are invested in those relationships and in partnering with them to create the necessary change insofar as they are willing and able to cooperate. We have been the thorn in the side of many a supplier… but hopefully more rose-like than thistle!

What can Outland Denim fans and sustainable shoppers expect to see from the Outland Denim brand over the next year or so?

We are just going to keep our heads down and continue to make improvements across our whole business; expand our product offering to cater for more people and our wonderful loyal customer base; and invest as much as we can into developing our social and environmental projects.

 

Check out the crowdfunding campaign here. Find out more about Outland Denim here.

About Author

Brittanie Dreghorn is the founder and editor of Britt's List, and an advocate for sustainable and Australian fashion.

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