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.