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Meet the Aussie jean brand taking on human trafficking – and winning

The Erica Bartle-founded Outland Denim has some famous fans. Images: Getty
The Erica Bartle-founded Outland Denim has some famous fans. Images: Getty, Supplied.

“I will look for you. I will find you. And I will kill you.”

When Liam Neeson said this line in the 2008 hit film Taken, it went on to become one of the movie’s most famous quotes.

However, the film – which has a narrative around human trafficking – had another, perhaps more significant legacy: the birth of Outland Denim, an Australian brand working to fight the crime.

“[Taken] was our introduction to the issue of human trafficking because we really had no idea,” Outland Denim co-founder Erica Bartle told Yahoo Finance.


The movie sparked an interest in the issue that was galvanized when she and her husband came across an NGO working to address it a few years later. Around 2.5 million people become human trafficking victims every year.

Bartle and her husband James Bartle decided to take action. They scraped together some money and sent James on a field trip to Cambodia and Thailand to better understand the issue. Bartle herself went into research mode, identifying the resources they could use to fight back and the hurdles they would face.

In 2016, six years after they decided to tackle human trafficking, they launched Outland Denim.

The clothing brand is an ethical and sustainable brand that provides training and employment for women who have experienced sex trafficking. It aims to eliminate the crime and has more than 80 employees across Asia and Australia who are paid living wages – a rarity in the $2.5 trillion fashion sector.

Outland Denim also uses up to 86 per cent less water, 83 per cent less chemicals and 57 per cent less energy in its Cambodian wash and finishing facilities by incorporating new technologies.

Today, the brand has fans including Leonardo Dicaprio and Meghan Markle, potentially the most famous woman alive. The company had to take on an additional 46 staff when the Duchess of Sussex wore the black Harriet jeans on tour in Australia, sending royal watchers into a shopping frenzy.

She later wore another set of the jeans in blue.

But for Bartle, one of the most exciting things is seeing sustainable and ethical clothing take off.

As a small business, she believes Outland Denim is in prime position to take advantage of the new consumer sentiment.

“We’ve just been riding the momentum, really. I think Outland Denim is a brand for a time such as this, but it’s the NGOs who have been doing this work in pushing and campaigning for fair wages,” she said.

“People at the forefront of the ethical fashion industry have been doing this for decades – it’s just that an ethical switch has been made in the consumer mindset.”

She believes shows like the ABC’s The War on Waste exemplify how Australians are becoming more conscious of their environmental and ethical footprint.

“So consumer awareness is picking up and it’s just gone gangbusters which is really exciting because it’s having a positive effect on the industry.”

In particular, while the big existing brands are being forced to “wake up and take accountability for their actions”, smaller, newer and more nimble brands have the freedom to fully integrate ethical and sustainable considerations into their processes from the start.

Now, Outland Denim has partnerships with major international retailers such as Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, Harry Rosen and Holt Renfrew, as well as David Jones, Myer and The Iconic in Australia.

From an idea to $1.3 million

Outland Denim is one of a growing number of female-led businesses achieving success through equity crowdfunding.

Businesses founded or co-founded by women raised around 25 per cent in their equity crowdfunding campaigns last year, according to analysis from crowdfunding platform Birchal.

They also attracted more than three times as many investors than businesses without a female founder or co-founder.

In a fundraising round with Birchal in May last year, Outland Denim found 1,012 investors and raised $1.3 million.

“Because equity crowdfunding enables founders to side step the old guard, and raise funds from their most passionate customers and fans, it is little wonder that female founders, and the investors that back them, are increasingly finding their voice,” Birchal co-founder and managing director Matt Vitale said.

To Bartle, the success has less to do with her gender and more to do with the brand’s message: beautiful clothes made with care and integrity in mind.

It’s a message she believes appeals to women.

“I want to reinforce how young and how female the global garment workforce is; the average age is 25. So if you are a young woman looking to support other young women, there’s no better way to support [them],” she said.

Additionally, she thinks the COVID-19 pandemic may have worked in Outland Denim’s favour, in a bizarre twist of fate.

The couple had always wanted to be able to include more people in the business and mobilise a “tribe off believers”.

While the pandemic meant the usual crowdfunding rallies and events were paused, investors had more time at home to do their research and tap in to the brand’s message.

“It enabled us to communicate one-on-one digitally with our network and to tell our story in Zoom meetings and on email and… people were connected.

“They were wanting to interact, because we were all entering this really strange new world.”

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