Are your denim jeans creating social change?

Author: Syvannah Wilson   Date Posted: 22 December 2017 

Having tasted the social change Outland Denim was creating in canapé form while interning as a third-year university student majoring in Environmental Management, it was only natural for me to go the full course when the subject for my honours thesis was on the cards. Beyond the supply chain I had become familiar with, I wanted to know: does this social enterprise really create social change?

The resulting 60-page research project, titled, ‘Impacts, challenges and opportunities: creating social value in a social enterprise in Cambodia’, involved a trip to Cambodia, interviews with Outland seamstresses and management staff, and hours of sugar-fuelled research into the social enterprise phenomenon.

Outland has been called an "an ethical jean manufacturing social enterprise". By nature, a social enterprise aims to create positive benefits for workers, the community and wider society through the selling of goods and services to remain financially viable. This is underpinned by a desire to create wider change socially, politically or within an industry, and thus social enterprises tend to be driven by core ‘social missions’.

Outland’s original social mission was to combat human trafficking by employing rehabilitated victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, and to increase the quality of life for both employees and their families. Over time, the mission has evolved to include the desire to provide for others in the community with the opportunity of employment, and the chance to increase their social and human capital through the offering of training and education. While positive social change may be prioritised over financial returns, a social enterprise employs traditional business techniques such as entrepreneurship, innovation and a market approach to ensure financial viability.

The main way in which I assessed whether Outland was creating positive social change was through measuring the organisation’s impact on the welfare, socio-economic status and personal and professional development of its seamstresses (numbering approximately 31 at the time of my research) and their families.

The research discovered that the main positive social impacts for seamstresses were in the areas of income and finances (increasing socio-economic status); educational classes, training and skills (professional development); and confidence and future aspirations (personal development), whereas the transfer of knowledge, childhood education and elderly support where the main benefits for the seamstresses’ families.

While Outland's starting wage is significantly above the average for workers in the garment manufacturing industry, it utilises a graded pay system to encourage its seamstresses, some who join with not even basic sewing skills, to upskill.

When questioned about the adequacy of the wage to cover necessities (food, water, shelter, electricity, household bills, healthcare and education), 77 per cent agreed that it was sufficient, while 23 per cent felt it was it was only sometimes adequate to cover necessities, especially when "expenses are higher”. The variation in response may be attributed to discrepancies as to how the term ‘necessities’ was interpreted by both the translator and the participants. For example, one participant outlined that the wage was sometimes not enough when costs were higher using the example of the cost of contributing towards a friend’s wedding.

For over half of the staff, the income allows them to save a portion of their wage each month. The ability to save money is a key factor in progressing an individual’s socio-economic status, and subsequently improving their quality of life. One seamstress stated that thanks to the wage Outland pays, she will be able to save money to send her children to school when they come of age. This is significant given the vulnerability of uneducated rural women and girls to the human trafficking industry.

Beyond this, Outland also pays its seamstresses to attend educational classes during work hours, which increases their knowledge and understanding of topics such as health, design, finance and English. This investment of time and skills acquisition leads to a growth in personal and professional development.

Three-quarters of seamstresses explicitly stated that the workplace training they received upon employment with Outland, in combination with the educational classes on design, have directly led to an increase in their knowledge and skills of sewing and tailoring.

Health was found to be the most beneficial class as seamstresses stated bad health can result in lower income through less work attendance, and therefore a lower quality of life. Additionally, one-quarter of seamstresses explicitly stated that exposure to a workplace full of such diverse individuals also helped develop their interpersonal skills.

Due to this education, training and skills development, 85% of respondents clearly stated that working for Outland has made them more confident. This confidence, in combination with the increase in wages and personal and professional development through employment with Outland, has led to many seamstresses gaining the skills and experience they need to pursue their future aspirations, whether financial, business or familial.

One seamstress highlighted that working for Outland has helped her "learn how to interact with people outside" of the anti-trafficking agency who rescued her from human trafficking. Others desire to own their own tailoring businesses, which they see as achievable through the provision of design classes, sewing training, and diversified sewing skills.

Approximately 60% of seamstresses have stated that they have already or intend to teach their family the knowledge or skills taught to them by Outland. For example, one participant stated that she intends to teach her daughter the women's health information about the reproductive system and childbirth taught in one of the Outland health classes, while others have passed this information on to their sisters and nieces. Another seamstress stated that she has been teaching her niece sewing skills.

Exactly 100% of the seamstresses who have children expressed their intention to send their children to school, while 70% have a desire for their children to attend university.

The culture in Cambodia tends to require that children look after their parents once the parents retire or become elderly. By enabling the seamstresses to invest in their children's education and thus enabling them to earn a higher paying job, the seamstresses are securing a higher quality of life for their children and their own retirement as their children would theoretically have a higher socio-economic status and thus be better able to provide for them.

Approximately one-quarter of seamstresses were responsible for supporting their elderly parents through the sending of remittances or paying off parental debt. Debt amongst the elderly in developing countries such as Cambodia increases the likelihood of poverty and exploitation.

Remittances are also vital for many in developing countries in the quest to stave off poverty, therefore, through assisting seamstresses in paying remittances or debt, Outland is positively impacting the welfare of elderly citizens and reducing the likelihood of them falling into poverty, in addition to reducing the likelihood that the seamstresses themselves will become impoverished in old age as their children are educated and therefore more likely to find higher-paying employment.

Furthermore, Outland chooses to operate in a rural area, mitigating the rural to city migration pattern common to many developing countries that causes a loss of social/familial connection.

As a social enterprise paying living wages, expecting no overtime and equipping its staff with technical and life skills in a positive workplace environment, Outland is setting an industry benchmark within a country that has built a sizeable garment manufacturing business (approximately 700,000 workers) for creating social benefits through business.

Notably, Outland's operational costs exceed other Cambodian businesses as they choose to pay above the minimum wage, train employees, pay for education classes, pay for any overtime, operate in a rural area, and abide by all relevant taxation and labour laws.

This social enterprise is not only selling product but the social value it created by the purchase of its products, which simply cannot be emulated by traditional businesses with a bottom line approach.

While your choice of jeans might further entrench a fashion system built on outsourcing its labour to the cheapest labour centres across the world that are often exploitative, labour which is largely made up of impoverished young women, Outland is actively advocating for a garment industry built upon the wellbeing of its workers.

The impact of a pair of Outlands is much wider than face value, affecting generational change through an increase in education, skills, income and personal and professional development, in a country where the youth has been severely disadvantaged by the genocide experienced by their parents and grandparents.

$219 for a pair premium, life-changing jeans with #zeroexploitation? I'd say that’s a fair cost to pay.

Interested in learning more about Outland Denim’s unique circular business model? Click here to find out more.

Syvannah Wilson has a Bachelor of Environmental Management (Honours) from the University of Queensland. Her interest in the field of environmental management lies within social sustainability and ethical conduct.