Lifecycling: Veterans breathe new life into military surplus
Sisters Emily Núñez Cavness and Betsy Núñez spent their childhood on military bases, sharing Thanksgiving dinners with soldiers in mess halls and listening in on their dad’s lectures to cadets and military officers. It felt like destiny in 2012 when Cavness, then a senior in college, wandered into a speech about social entrepreneurship. She left with an idea to empower the very veterans who had made such an impression on her own life.
Cavness wanted the company she was soon to build to connect both her military community and civilian life into something actionable. Few of her college friends had ever met someone in the armed forces before her. During her military training, she had learned how often veterans struggled to find jobs outside of service, perhaps because of this cultural divide.
She wanted her company to have meaning beyond profit. “I thought, ‘What in my life is discarded that could be repurposed into something really beautiful with a purposeful mission?’” she said. Looking around the room and noticing all of her classmates’ backpacks, her idea for Sword & Plough came to light.
Cavness pitched the idea to her sister Betsy Núñez: a social impact fashion brand that would repurpose military surplus into bags and accessories, while bringing opportunities to veterans. She knew Núñez would bring her experience running marketing and sales for a company in Boston.
Núñez didn’t need much convincing. The idea resonated with her, she said, down to the idea of lifecycling military fabrics. “When we were growing up, our mom was always getting us to turn the lights off and think about food waste and recycling,” Núñez said, adding that they were taught to be mindful of their carbon footprint and give back to their community.
The name Sword & Plough comes from the biblical phrase “to beat swords into ploughshares” — in other words, to use wartime tools for peacetime good.
To start their company, the sisters studied their favorite accessories and consulted a friend for design advice. Cavness dug up a vintage military tent, and their mom, Judy, sewed it into their first prototype.
A successful crowdsourcing campaign and several grants and awards later, Sword & Plough’s accessories are now made by five manufacturers, all of which are either veteran-owned or employ veterans. Cavness, who was still on active duty at the time, deployed to Afghanistan a year after dreaming up Sword & Plough.
The company gives 10% of its net profits to organizations that support veterans, including GreenVetsLA, which manufacturers some of Sword & Plough’s bags and provides job training and therapy through sewing workshops; Got Your 6, which advocates for the accurate portrayal of veterans in film and media; and Team Red, White and Blue, which enriches the lives of veterans by connecting them to their communities through physical and social activities.
“We wanted to incorporate veterans at every single stage of Sword & Plough’s business model,” Cavness said.
Many veterans return home without decent prospects. Employers often don’t know what skills veterans bring to the job. Other veterans can’t get hired at all. About 1 in 3 employers say post-traumatic stress disorder prevents them from hiring veterans, though the majority of veterans do not qualify for a PTSD diagnosis. Others who remain in reserve service say they can’t get hired because employers worry they will redeploy.
“Veterans are extremely dedicated, disciplined and purpose-driven,” Núñez said. It is important, she said, “to create more of a conversation about how they are incredible assets to businesses.”
True to their original plan, the sisters say the company has already used more than 30,000 pounds of surplus and discontinued material in orders. They lifecycle military fabrics, like shelter half-tents, aircraft padding, bunting fabrics, parachutes and sleeping bags that would otherwise have been discarded, Núñez said. Sword & Plough recently launched a pilot program to collect donated uniforms from active service members and veterans to lifecycle into more uniquely patterned products.
Cavness said seeing an old pattern gives them a sense of nostalgia and pride they share with other military families.
From manufacturing to shipping, Núñez said, their company has helped support over 65 jobs for veterans since launching in 2013. Many of the veterans they work with were introduced to them through friends or partner organizations. Veteran Shanna Rodenberg, who creates an exclusive line of jewelry for Sword & Plough, is one of these people. She met the Núñezes when they simultaneously reached out to express admiration for each other’s work.
In 2011, Rodenberg started her company, Bang Bang Ballistic Jewelry. Making the transition back to life at home in Indiana was proving to be tough after she returned from duty, especially after she learned that her teaching job had been cut. “I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I did not see the future,” she said.
In 2005, Rodenberg was deployed to Afghanistan, where she ran daily missions on the road between Kabul and Bagram Airfield. After a particularly challenging week with her brigade, she tucked a used shell from her machine gun in her pocket as a reminder of her comrades’ sacrifices.
Rodenberg held onto that shell for six years before turning it into a bracelet; her now-business partner suggested she tap into her creative side to cope with her return to civilian life. She hasn’t taken it off since. Rodenberg’s line is just one of Sword & Plough’s veteran brand partners.
“They’re really interested in giving back and giving vets a purpose again,” Rodenberg said. “I personally feel I’ve been repurposed for an important purpose. They have been a ray of sunshine for me.”
Stories like Rodenberg’s stand as a reminder to the Núñezes that their community-driven brand can make both a social and an environmental impact.
“We were in a unique position to create this company because the military community really raised us, and we have such a strong connection to it,” Cavness said. “The veterans we support are like family.”