This veteran-owned company gives back by turning discarded military items into fashionable accessories
The idea of turning “swords into ploughshares” — that is to say, converting military technology and/or equipment into materials with a peaceful civilian purpose — is a very old concept. The phrase comes from the Bible’s Book of Isaiah 2:3-4:
And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
This is where Sword & Plough draws its name. The company sells unique designer handbags and accessories made from discarded military surplus items. Co-founded by the daughters of a 30-year U.S. Army veteran, Col. (ret.) Joseph Núñez, Sword & Plough is a veteran-owned-and-operated business, dedicated to hiring and supporting veterans.
One daughter, Emily Núñez Cavness, is S&P’s CEO, and is also an active duty Army 1st. Lt. serving with the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne). Emily co-founded Sword & Plough with her sister Betsy Núñez, who is the Chief Operations Officer.
“We have received such an incredibly positive and supportive response from our community,” Núñez Cavness says. “We’re still a young company, 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 grow our wholesale business to brick and mortar shops throughout the country.”
“What sets Sword & Plough apart is our commitment to a quadruple bottom line,” she continues. “People, Purpose, Planet, Profit. This means that we are simultaneously focused on improving veteran employment and supporting American jobs, bridging the civilian-military gap, repurposing surplus material, and donating 10% of our profits back to veteran organizations.”
One of their biggest passions is supporting veteran entrepreneurship.
“Betsy and I grew up on Army posts across the country and we couldn’t be more excited to be able to give back to the military and veteran community,” Núñez Cavness says. “One of the most rewarding parts of both serving in the Army and leading Sword & Plough is the ability I have to bring the knowledge of starting a business to the veteran community. Many soldiers and veterans approach me with exciting ideas and ask for advice on how to start. Mentoring aspiring veteran entrepreneurs is one of my favorite things to do. Veterans already have so many of the leadership and management skills necessary to be successful in entrepreneurship or business. It is such an energizing experience to help chart realistic pathways to bring their ideas to reality.”
Since launching in 2013, Sword & Plough repurposed over 35,000 pounds of military surplus, supported 38 veteran jobs, donated 10 percent of profits annually, and shipped over 10,000 products globally. Not a bad startup period.
Their father commanded Army forces at the company and battalion level, taught political science at West Point, and deployed to Haiti in 1994 in support of Operations Restore Democracy and Uphold Democracy. Their uncle, Kenneth Cameron, served in the Marine Corps. Cameron is a retired Colonel and was an aviator, test pilot, engineer, and NASA astronaut who piloted three missions to outer space.
Being from such a strong military family, Emily Núñez Cavness is herself an ROTC graduate of Middlebury College. She recalls her introduction to the civilian-military divide, which happened as she walked to a military science class one morning.
“I was abruptly stopped when an upperclassman walked out of the fine arts building,” she says. “He meandered toward me and asked, ‘Hi there, What play are you in?! I’ve never seen you around here.’ I didn’t have a lot of time to talk since I’d be late for my class, so I quickly explained that my uniform was not in fact a costume, but my actual government issued uniform for Army ROTC.”
This would be the first of many instances to leave an impression on her. They would come to help influence Sword & Plough’s mission to empower veteran employment and bridge that divide in any way they can. But it doesn’t stop there. The summer after her sophomore year at Middlebury, Núñez Cavness found herself at the U.S. Army Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia.
“Even though I grew up in a military family on several Army Posts, this was the first time I was training next to Soldiers as a fellow service member rather than as a military kid,” she recalls. “We would spend almost every day quickly running from place to place in our helmets and boots, only to wait for hours under the hot sun until it was our turn to practice the parachute landing fall or how to properly pull a slip.”
“It didn’t take long for these periods of downtime to become some of my favorite moments of the course because it was then that the students to my left and right would open up to me about their past experiences in the Army and their goals and hopes for the future. Some expressed an interest in leaving the military in the near future but were seriously worried about their job prospects after talking to veteran friends who had been unemployed for a long time after leaving military service. At the time, I didn’t always know what to say, but I never forgot those conversations. It seemed like such an injustice to me that a group of people who had sacrificed so much and become such proven leaders would face this type of adversity.”
Fast forward one and a half years and Núñez Cavness is listening to Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder and CEO of Acumen, give her keynote speech during Middlebury’s first Social Entrepreneurship Symposium. She was talking about a business which incorporated recycling into its business model. The talk had young Núñez Cavness’ mind running 100 miles per hour.
“The way she described it immediately made me reflect on my own life,” Núñez Cavness said. “I asked myself, ‘what in my life is wasted on daily basis that could be harnessed and made into something beautiful?’ Having grown up on Army posts, I immediately thought back to the huge piles of military surplus I used to see that were going to be buried in a landfill or burned. 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 the military surplus that would otherwise be discarded and turn it into stylish bags?”
As part of its dedication to giving back to veterans, Sword & Plough makes financial contributions to veteran-focused organizations like Rocky Mountain Human Services, Feeding Our Vets, and Got Your 6. They support charitable organizations by donating their products for fundraisers.
These donations have helped recipients raise thousands of dollars through blind and live auctions. They also donate products to events which can raise general public awareness about veterans’ issues and the civil-military divide. To date, they have made more than $10,000 worth of product donations to organizations like the Navy SEAL Foundation, the 3rd and Goal Foundation, the Headstrong Project, and more.
Núñez Cavness designed the first three bags herself, but Sword & Plough now has a creative director to design products. They also have a number of products designed by veterans.
“The military relies on cutting edge gear and technology to carry out its missions,” Núñez Cavness says. “This relationship with their equipment has definitely influenced the way we think about design and fashion. We repurpose military surplus equipment not only for the environmental benefits and vintage appeal, but also for its durability. Our team draws inspiration from cities that we live in, the people that we interact with, the feedback from the S&P community of supporters, the history of the materials we use, and we try to honor tradition by constantly innovating and keeping functionality in mind.”