It’s been just over four months since I began my journey as the Environmental Systems Engineer at Outland Denim. I’ve been so enthralled in my role I’ve barely had time to talk about it, but with our recent trip to Cambodia I thought it the perfect opportunity to start… From the start.
Where the journey began..
This time last year I was arriving at an Outland Denim shoot where I was to model their newest collection. I’d stayed up late the night before working through my university assignments (I was in my final year of an Honours degree in Civil & Environmental Engineering). It was an exciting time for me as I was coming to the end of study and modelling would no longer have to be something that supported me financially - but something I did for fun and that I believed in. For me, this meant being able to be more selective with the brands that I worked with and strengthening my voice on ethical fashion and conscious living.
Sitting in the makeup chair at the shoot, I was going through the routine questions of getting to know each other when I explained what I’d been studying. James (the founder of Outland) eyes lit up as he enquired about what my course had taught me, and whether I’d looked into the environmental impact of the fashion industry and working in ‘developing’ countries. I explained that I’d just returned from Cambodia where I’d done an intensive course with Engineers Without Borders learning about Humanitarian Engineering and that this was how I intended to pursue my career. It was then I learned the story behind Outland, and how James had spent the last seven years going to Cambodia, working with NGO’s to develop an aftercare program to protect women who had been rescued from human trafficking or sexual exploitation.. And so the Outland dream was born.
Through Outland, James wanted to create a program with longevity, that would not only improve the lives of the women while attached to the company, but also for whatever life they chose outside of it. He wanted to create real social change through opportunity, training, education, living wages and wholistic care.
Since the program has been running, Outland has taken women from unskilled backgrounds, provided them with counselling, training, English classes, self defence courses, family security and budgeting lessons, living wages and more… Tools that we take for granted in the western world as we either inherit the knowledge from our surroundings or they are so easily accessible. The program gives some of the women a chance at a second life, and a lot of them a chance at a first.. At the end of it comes a premium product that the seamstresses have proudly made, that is able to be retailed and fed back into the system to allow them to continue to grow and learn. This is what we call ‘Profit for Purpose’ and it’s what gives the Outland dream security and longevity.
So you’re probably thinking - ‘Okay, but what does engineering have to do with any of this?’. There are three elements to achieving sustainability - social, economic and environmental. Realistically, one cannot exist without the other. Outland realised that they could not truly be saving peoples lives if they weren’t thinking about the environment they live in. The fashion industry is a major contributor to green house emissions. A single pair of jeans can use over 6800 L of water from the cotton farming, dying and washing… Not to mention the energy and waste that domino’s along side it. With the internet has come the ability to design and source your own products in a quick click of a mouse - without ever having to think about where it came from or who made it. Multiply this impact by millions of companies competing with each other, driving the prices lower and lower, along with the regard for environmental and social impact. We expect that the people working in these countries are paid a fair wage that allows them to live a good life. We assume that waste is disposed of correctly and that if peoples livelihoods were at steak then we would know.. Because that’s how we live in the western world. But that’s not the case. So how do we fix it?
Through my role, I’ve been mapping the environmental impact of our company - from organic cotton, plant dyes, to how much water and waste has been created along the way. The intention here is to create a closed loop system. Where every component that has gone into making a pair of jeans feeds back into each other and allows the system to continue to run, significantly reducing our impact on the environment and pioneering a change of practice in the fashion industry.
Because a lot of this is untouched in Australia, I haven’t had many examples to draw from and have had to instigate a lot of the research myself (and hopefully some universities are about to get on board!). This is scary, but also so incredibly exciting. I’ve been looking into alternative options for our waste like using mushrooms to eat left over fabric, repurposing waste for building materials, sourcing recycled materials such as buttons and zips that are then able to be melted down and repurposed, exploring alternatives to plastic packaging, ensuring our denim is from the highest quality organic farms where no pesticides have been used and therefore the natural environment has been kept in tact… And perhaps the biggest challenge of the clothing industry - reducing the amount of water that is required to wash and dye each item through innovative practices and machinery.
Our recent visit to Cambodia..
My recent trip to Cambodia was the first time I had the opportunity to meet our seamstresses and see our program in action. I can’t explain to you how much it humbled me to be able to meet them in person after hearing their stories of heartache and everything they have accomplished since coming onboard. There were stories of building their own houses, moving on and opening up their own businesses, putting their children through school and creating a life for themselves that previously felt so far out of reach. There is no amount of research, no translation of words that could do justice to the overwhelming gratitude in their eyes. These women have been through more hardship than I or many of us in western societies can fathom… But they are no longer victims. They’re survivors. And they are so strong.
The rest of the trip was packed with meetings, machinery visits and checking out spaces for the opportunity of expanding. I will never forget walking into this abandoned garment factory… It was over an acre and littered with remnants of clothing from labels I knew and many I didn’t. It was the first time I had felt the magnitude of what I was dealing with here. All I could think of was “if this is what was left behind, what must have been here before?”. This is only one of the millions of warehouses all over the world that exist for the creation of our leisures, and disappear when they lose trend or the prices were driven too low to continue to support their staff and pay a liveable wage. This is everything I am fighting against, in every sense. I looked around amongst the thousands of swing tags, loose threads and scrap cloth and thought… I can fix this - but I can’t do it alone. And now, more than ever I am motivated to use my voice to support ethical fashion both in and out of work. I really hope that by reading this you feel this way too.
So that’s a little of what I’ve been up to on the Engineering front. This job fulfils me in so many ways - from allowing me to practice my studies, sustainability, working in developing countries to empowering women on both far and home soil. I also want to thank the many amazing women who have reached out with your kind words.. if I ever feel overwhelmed and like this is all beyond me, you have picked me up and pushed me to keep going. I hope this answered some of your questions on the kind of work that I’m doing with Outland and I will continue to write more. But If I’m ever silent on the matter - trust that it’s because I haven’t quite yet figured out how to put into words my gratitude of how this little dream of mine became a reality.
I’m so excited for what we’re going to do here.