By Jamie Siebrase | Jun 13, 2017
Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Upcycled bags
Growing up, Caffrey's mom instilled in her daughter a simple rule: "Instead of feeling sorry for yourself, do something for somebody else."
When she found herself with two young kids and a doomed marriage, Caffrey decided to do something that would change the world. "That sounds dramatic, but going through a divorce is dramatic," she says.
Caffrey began volunteering with an organization called Street's Hope, mentoring a woman who was coming out of the sex trade. Research indicates that 67 percent of women with a history of felony, incarceration, or addiction will relapse in three years without community intervention and the opportunity to succeed. Caffrey's mentee was no exception: She struggled and relapsed.
Months later -- when her children started preschool -- Caffrey started a small sewing group. That's when everything came together: "I realized I could hire one of the ladies from Street's Hope," says Caffrey. She called up the organization, and asked if any of the women participating in Street's Hope's restorative programming needed jobs. "All of them did," Caffrey says.
In 2005, Caffrey hired one woman to sew with her in her house. A year later, she founded Mission Wear as a nonprofit aimed at employing women facing severe obstacles to employment.
Mission Wear moved its operation from Caffrey's home to a neighborhood church and then, three years later, to a small shop in Capitol Hill. But by 2013, the organization had outgrown that space, too, and it relocated to its current site in Aurora, where it partners with a number of area organizations, including The Gathering Place and the Denver Women's Correctional Facility.
"Over the past 11 years, we've had over 70 employees," Caffrey says, noting that Mission Wear gives participants an opportunity to learn a skill and accumulate up to two years of work experience. That last part is important, she explains. "Many of our employees have no formal job history, and entering back into mainstream society is extremely difficult if you've been living on the street and haven't worked in a long time."
Mission Wear began manufacturing reusable bags at the right time, at the onset of the reusable bag craze. The United States goes through billions of plastic bags annually, Caffrey says, noting that her nonprofit does double duty by providing jobs to those in need and keeping trash out of landfills.
When it launched, Mission Wear made canvas and muslin totes, which were popular at a food cooperative in Boulder. Caffrey was experimenting with upcycled denim shopping bags when a buyer from Whole Foods Market asked if Mission Wear could turn vinyl banners into bags, too. And that's how Caffrey found her niche.
"We've been making bags from banners for nine years, and gradually started making other stuff out of upcycled materials," Caffrey says. In addition to its hallmark totes, Mission Wear produces messenger bags, purses, and zippered pouches. The organization has also made aprons for Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers and iPad sleeves for Metropolitan State University of Denver.
"The banner bags are still our bestseller," Caffrey adds, pointing out a recent account with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts that transformed The Book of Mormon banners into bags.
Recycled materials can be a little tricky to work with. Mission Wear started its business with a couple of Kenmore home sewing machines. "The trickiest thing is when we get banners that are beat up," says Caffrey. "It didn't take long before we realized we needed industrial machines for sewing banners." Today, her employees use a power cutter and a handful of industrial sewing machines.
Production runs vary by year. "At our height, we were probably doing about 5,000 bags annually." Most of Caffrey's clients are local, but she's landed accounts with clients from Colorado to New York.
Challenges: Establishing a sustainable cut-and-sew operation in Colorado is no small feat. "Manufacturing is expensive, and it's different here from overseas where you can pay employees way less," notes Caffrey.
Creating unique design concepts is another challenge. "Coming up with the next thing," Caffrey says. "You always have to come up with something fresh."
Opportunities: Mission Wear's biggest opportunity involves further supporting the women it serves. As Caffrey puts it, "Our goal is to continue to employ women, and give them opportunities to grow and become self-sufficient. We'll continue to keep the women's employment as our core focus."
Needs: "We need more customers, and more conscious consumers -- more people who are conscious of recycling and the importance of purchasing bags that are reusable," Caffrey says.