Frontline Fashion: How a company is turning discarded military supplies into stylish accessories

Emily and Betsy Nunez are no strangers to the military lifestyle; the sisters grew up with an army colonel as a father and spent their childhood watching their dad leading early morning battalion runs, Thanksgiving dinners with hundreds of soldiers at mess halls were the norm and their uncle, who was a Marine NASA Astronaut pilot, actually helped to launch a space shuttle. It was no surprise then that Emily herself joined the U.S. Army and served as an intelligence officer.

Emily & Betsey Nuniz: Facebook - Sword & Plough

It was during her many stints with the army that Emily came up with an idea to transform the discarded tents, sleeping bags and parachutes into handbags, accessories and backpacks. Emily was attending a lecture at the Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship in Vermont last January and heard about a venture from Berkeley College students, who created a gourmet mushroom business using compost from old coffee grounds. It occurred to her that she could possibly recycle old discarded military supplies into useful items.

Messenger bag - $269, Tote - $219

Emily worked closely with Middlebury’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship and in 2012 – Sword and Plough was founded, a company that specialises in recycling and repurposing discarded military gear, but with a fashionable touch. Emily states on her website: “I wanted to create something that would emotionally and physically touch civilians in their everyday lives and remind them, in a beautiful way, of the challenges our country and servicemen face. We create sturdy and sophisticated products, whose sale will empower veteran employment, reduce waste and strengthen civil-military understanding. In this way, our bags are rugged, refined and relevant.”

Rucksack - $289, iPhone sleeve - $39, iPad sleeve - $69

Emily featured her business on the crowdfunding site KickStarter, and so far has raised $75,663 in donations – more than three times her original goal of $20,000. And even the manufacturing of the bags and rucksacks is a completely military affair, as she became partners with the Green Vets Los Angeles, a company founded by U.S. Army Reserve Major Jim Cragg in 2009 that gives both injured and able bodied veterans, training and jobs in sewing factories.

Emily Nunez - Photo by Thomas S. England.

Emily estimates that around 750,000lbs of discarded military surplus will be used to create new products, and best of all, it will also create about 600 new veteran jobs. Emily said: “A lot of the time discarded military surplus material is burned or buried if no one does anything with it, so I thought, ‘What if we were to take this material and turn it into something beautiful that someone would want to buy?'”

Sword & Plough

As well as the military connections, the company is a family affair, as it was Emily’s sister Betsy, 25, who encouraged her to pursue the idea persuaded her to enter a social entrepreneurship contest sponsored by Middlebury College. It was this that led to a three-week stint at Dell’s inaugural Summer Social Innovation Lab last July. In February Emily entered Harvard’s Pitch for Change competition and won first prize, out of a total of 100 entrants. She won a $6,500 check and free consulting and her sister Betsy decided to take on a more full time role at the company and became the creative director.

Sword & Plough

Betsey told the Huffington Post: “In the military they teach you to have your team operate even when you’re not there. [Emily] will still be able to execute as a CEO from Afghanistan.” The sisters are so far enjoying working together, but one thing Betsey is struggling with is the early starts, she said that working with a military sister means that meeting times ‘typically means being thirty minutes early.’

The sisters chose the unusual name of Sword and Plough for the company as it originates from a biblical phrase ‘to beat swords into ploughshares’, which means to refrain from violence and turn to peaceful solutions.

Amongst the items available for sale are rucksacks, bags, keyfobs and iPad cases and 10% of profits will be donated to the Veteran Green Jobs and the Wounded Warrior Project, which help U.S. military veterans transition to civilian life.

For more information visit swordandplough.com

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