Outland Denim: To God Be the Glory

by Larry Sharp

This month we are featuring stories from Larry Sharp. Larry’s new book ‘Mission Disrupted: From Professional Missionaries to Missionary Professionals’ tells 27 stories and is out now!

On October 18, 2018 Prince Harry and Meghan landed in the outback of Australia as the first stop in their royal visit to that country.  As is always the case, the media surveyed every aspect of the royal’s appearance including the black stove-pipe Hariett jeans the Duchess was wearing. Why those jeans?  Where were they fabricated? How much did they cost?  What was the brand?

As it turned out Meghan was making a statement in support of those fighting human slavery and trafficking.  Her jeans were manufactured by Outland Denim, a BAM company owned by a kingdom minded Australian couple with a factory in Kampong Cham, Cambodia.

As a new board member of the Freedom Business Alliance in 2017 I realized I had much to learn so planned a trip to visit seven freedom businesses in Cambodia.  Outland Denim was one of those businesses.  Later it was a delight to interview one of the founders in preparation for telling the story in the book Missions Disrupted:  From Professional Missionaries to Missional Professionals.

Human trafficking is a lucrative multi-national 150 billion dollar per year illegal industry of exploitation and enslavement; and two-thirds of that total comes from sexual slavery.  Estimates indicate that up to 40 million people are trapped in modern slavery and most are women and children – a crisis of epic proportions.  It is something demanding the involvement of anyone sensitive to the plight of hurting people.

I learned that there are three phases in the efforts to bring change to the lives of those who have been traumatized and now desire to be transformed into successful survivors:  1) rescue, 2) restore; 3) reintegrate.  Most activity for those giving aid is concentrated in the first two phases of rescuing victims and working to restore them.  It is the third phase which is largely ignored – reintegration into the workplace so they can be gainfully employed.  This is where the need is for freedom businesses which provide employment with managers that understand their journey and have a plan for helping them learn a skill and live a post-trauma life.

James Bartle was a career motocross racer when he came head on with the plague of human trafficking.  When preparing to marry Erica, he learned that she too encountered the sex industry while on a tour in Asia.  She came to realize that there was more to life than her career as a glamour girl and beauty editor of a popular teen girls’ magazine in Sydney.  God was working in their lives.

After their wedding they continued to learn of the devastation in the lives of young girls.  They also came to realize that it is vital for survivors to find a sustainable career path in order to reintegrate into society and be whole once again.  It was from here that the foundations of Outland Denim were laid as a avenue for training, employment and career progression for these vulnerable women.

James and Erica and their team in Australia spent over six years developing a business model as they raised some capital from concerned friends, took it to market, and set up in Cambodia. They started with a small group of five aspiring seamstresses who had been recommended by an NGO with front-line operations in Cambodia.  These women needed work in a safe place as part of their journey to flourishing.

There was a strong learning curve for the team as they tackled a highly specialized craft from scratch, from experiments in pattern making, sourcing raw materials and stone washing in a cement mixer, to setting up a manufacturing process that began with pedal press sewing machines and hot-coal irons.  James told me, “We are not about generating sales so we could have impact; but we strive to concentrate on impact as a driver of sales.”  With most Christians purchasing goods made with exploitive labor, James and Erica wanted people to change their mentality and realize that Outland Denim did not rely on cheap labor for success but had a much broader mission to set a high standard for the treatment of young female workers in the garment industry.

The women take pride in their work as we noted on the finished products, the leather patch had a simple statement under the Outland name, “This jean handcrafted by …… (name of person)”, There is a strong commitment to preparing each of the seamstress employees with all the skills of the factory. Each person learns every aspect – every machine and every detail on a pair of jeans – the denim, the thread, rivets, buttons, belt loops, zippers – all are meticulously and artfully produced and reviewed. The high-end product is no regular jean – but a quality outcome with retail prices in North America starting at $195 per pair of jeans.

The Quadruple Bottom Line sets the standard for Outland Denim.  Profitability, Job Creation, Disciple-making and Creation Care.  All of these were clearly visible in the Kampong Cham factory.  James reflected on the hard times with difficulty developing a proof-of-concept and issues of cash flow, among others.  But he always held to his founding motivation to be obedient to the Great Commandment to love God and love people.  One-site managers Caleb and Katies told us stories of lives changing by the grace of God as the leadership team lived out how Jesus would act in that location and that culture.

Outland Denim is strongly committed the verifying the ethical sourcing of all items in the supply chain. Each item is checked for its social responsibility and environmental impact. For example, a company representative recently traveled to Turkey to check on the denim which is sourced a one particular location in that country, making sure it is using organic cotton and other approved processes such as natural indigo dyes which are less toxic. Every item from the thread to the denim, to the dyes, zippers, buttons, rivets, leather patches and washing process is guaranteed to not be exploitive and be the most socially and environmentally responsible as possible.

God continues to show his favor on Outland Denim.  When I visited there were about 50 employees, but the unexpected visit of the Duchess opened the doors to more than doubling that number.  After Meghan’s visit there was an immediate 3,000 percent increase in web traffic to Outland’s site and sales grew by 640 percent in the week following.  In Australia and in the United States the Harriet style she wore sold out in twenty-four hours and went on back-order twice.  Within a year they had 120 employees as they tapped into missionary and NGO workers who had been preparing survivors for such an opportunity.

James summarizes it this way when speaking of his latest crowd-funding effort to provide others with an opportunity to serve in an honorable and tangible way,

As a profit-for-purpose company, we are ensuring the economic sustainability of our operations by making a profit to reinvest into Outland.  This money can then increase the social and environmental sustainability as it can be used to hire more seamstresses or invest in more environmentally sound materials.

James concluded his time with me with the reminder that they simply want to be obedient and real success is measured with changed lives – to God be the glory!

Larry Sharp is the Founder and current Director of Strategic Training and Partnerships of a Business for Transformation (BAM, B4t) consulting firm, International Business and Education Consultants (www.ibecventures.com). Larry served 21 years in Brazil and then 20 years as Crossworld VP of Operations and as Vice President of Business Partnerships. He is currently a VP Emeritus and consultant with Crossworld. Since 2007 he has devoted energies toward Business as Mission (BAM) and currently is a consultant on BAM and education themes. Larry travels within North America speaking and teaching in conferences, colleges and churches on themes related to Business As Mission (BAM, B4t) and missions.  His travels abroad relate to BAM, crisis preparation and management, and team building. 


Get the new BAM Book: Missions Disrupted by Larry Sharp

Get it at all good book stores online!