Fashion and philanthropy are not strangers. Brands as luxe as Versace and as accessible as American Eagle have giving back programs, promotions and products that help enable generous donations to crucial causes on a regular rotation. TOMS and Warby Parker are two more brands that combine philanthropy, product innovation and a one for one business model together to bring staggering benefits to worthy individuals around the globe.
Sword & Plough, founded by U.S. Army veteran Emily Nunez and her sister Betsy, pushes beyond promotion and marketing to incorporate philanthropy and environmental responsibility into its core business. And they do it on a pretty profound level each and every day. Sword & Plough repurposes thousands of pounds of military surplus that would otherwise be discarded and creates fashion forward bags and accessories from it. Beyond that, they dedicate 10% of their profits to veteran’s initiatives that help elevate the nearly 20 million Americans who have served our country at home and abroad. Sword & Plough also partners with manufacturers who employ the 7.7 million veterans active in the workforce today, plus employs them directly. We’re fans of their messenger bags, yes, but our admiration runs much deeper for Emily, Betsy and their team of innovators who are not only giving back, they are truly pushing forward.
We’re proud to feature Sword & Plough on Brandettes and excited to share a behind the scenes look into the brand with Co-Founder and CEO, Emily Nunez Cavness (pictured center, below).
Emily, can you give us some behind the scenes insight about how Sword & Plough came to be?
Emily Nunez Cavness (ENC)- When I first arrived at Middlebury College as a freshman student, I was the only Army ROTC cadet on campus. I was curious to see how my classmates would respond. The majority of my close friends were incredibly supportive of my desire to serve, even though many of them had never met someone in the military. I would often receive questions about what my training entailed, but sometimes I was met with looks of complete confusion. I was always trying to find ways to increase the conversations and understanding between military and civilian communities.
After my sophomore year at Middlebury I attended the U.S. Army Airborne School, where I spoke with soldiers who had just returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of them expressed an interest in leaving the military, but were concerned about finding civilian employment. I didn’t know what to say at the time, but I never forgot those conversations.
Fast forward to one and a half years and I’m sitting in Middlebury College’s Mead Chapel listening to Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen, give her keynote speech during Middlebury’s first Social Entrepreneurship Symposium.
She was telling us about a business that had incorporated recycling into its business model, and the way she described that model made me reflect on my own experiences. I asked myself, “What in my life is wasted on a daily basis that could be harnessed and made into something beautiful, with a powerful mission?” Having grown up with a military logistician as a dad, I immediately thought back to the huge piles of military surplus I used to see waiting to be burned or buried in a landfill somewhere.
As I looked around the audience, I noticed that every student had a backpack or bag of some kind propped up next to them. And then… it clicked! Why don’t I take rugged, durable military surplus that would otherwise be discarded and turn it into fashionable bags that could appeal to people like my classmates? I tried to attentively listen to the rest of Jacqueline’s talk, but my mind was running 100 miles an hour as I began brainstorming all the possibilities.
Your idea to repurpose military gear into bags and accessories is incredible. How did you go about securing your supply chain? We imagine that you worked through a tremendous amount of red tape.
ENC- Working with surplus material certainly poses challenges, but it also adds a unique degree of ingenuity to our process. We’re always looking for new material to work with. We source our materials through auctions, military contractors and even donations.
How does Sword & Plough get the word out about the brand, overall, and its core mission?
ENC- One of the most powerful elements of a brand is story. We’ve crafted a unique story and we’ve been able to leverage that story to build a very strong community of followers. Our fans are truly one of our biggest assets. We rely heavily on social media and the power of community to share the Sword & Plough brand and mission.
What impact has your commitment to work with veteran owned, operated and staffed manufacturers had on your business?
ENC- From the beginning, Sword & Plough has been about more than just creating bags. We’ve always been excited to create great products, but our hope was that those products could be used as a platform to promote change. We decided to incorporate a lifecycle business model by empowering and giving back to the original users of our product’s materials. One of the ways we’ve done that is by supporting and creating veteran job opportunities within our own company and also within our suppliers and manufacturing partners. We work with veterans in every stage of our business from product design, to sewing, quality control, management, and even as models for our lookbooks.
Is there one design that seems to resonate with customers more than any other?
ENC- Our Signature Tote was one of the first products we designed and it has continued to be one of our most popular bags. Our newer Wool Handbag and Wool Crossbody are also very popular.
Can you give us a look into Sword & Plough’s future? What’s on the horizon?
ENC- We’re still young, but we’re growing fast and we have a lot happening in the New Year. In addition to expanding our product line, we have a number of exciting brand partnerships in the works and we’re planning to expand our wholesale business to brick and mortar shops throughout the country.