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Blue jeans, green cards grow a Goodwill business

The green movement has gone blue at Paperworks Studio, where recycled denim is turned into handmade greeting cards by workers with special needs and disadvantages.

They can do the same thing with scrap wool and old coffee grounds. A khaki-pant fabric treatment is in the works.

It’s an idea whose time has come, even if it’s been 18 years in the making, says Brian Lewis, director of sales and business development.

The program to teach life and work skills, and encourage creativity and artistry started in the Traverse City Area Public Schools and caught the eye of Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan, which took over the program three years ago. Now, Paperworks Studio is on the radar of the national Goodwill organization as a model for market-driven social enterprise, and big business partners, such as Lee Jeans, are on board.

The program employs people who face challenges in seeking traditional employment, including those with developmental disabilities.

The processes used by Paperworks to take discarded materials — denim being the largest source — hasn’t changed much, Lewis explains, but no one could figure out how to make this feel-good charitable endeavor a business. Locals bought the cards, the workers got a lot out of it, but it wasn’t changing the world, he says.

Now he thinks there is potential for that.

“The green movement is very big for us. We’re the other side of it — making things no one else makes out of materials no one else wants,” Lewis says. “It’s green, it’s a good cause, it’s a good product, and it’s a group of artists that inspire you every day. How could this not work?”

It might not have — or at least not as well — pre-social media. Lee signed on after the brand’s Facebook community manager connected with Paperworks. Lee now donates unsalable denim, including discontinued styles, prototypes and leg panels.

The project brings Lee that much closer to its sustainability goals, says Nancy White, manager of marketing communications, and the employment of people with special needs makes it a win-win. “We have seen samples of the cards. They are very cute and we’re excited to have the employees put a creative spin on it,” White says.

Missy Marsh, who has worked at Paperworks for a year doing quality control, has given one-of-a-kind cards to her parents for their birthdays, and one of Marsh’s former teachers told her she bought several of the denim ones, complete with their loose threads.

That made Marsh feel good, she says, because it’s her job to make sure all the cards are “nice and pretty.”

It’s up to Eric Brewer to take the pulp created with the denim and other materials off screens, dry it and take it off once it’s more like stationery paper. “It’s miraculous how this works,” he says.

At least 20 pairs of hands touch each card, says Lewis. Raw material is ground into pulp, shaped into sheets, dried, cut and folded, and then an insert for writing is added and the finished card is packaged with a profile of one of the artisans.

There’s a similar mindset between the folks at Paperworks and one-of-a-kind wool-garment brand Baabaazuzu, which built its apparel and accessories business on the end goal of zero waste. Each Baabaazuzu sweater, hat or handbag is made of a patchwork of second-hand wool products that have been washed in hot water to create a stronger, denser fabric.

But even though recycled wool is the main material, there still is waste, says company co-founder Sue Burns. Donating the rest to Paperworks further advances the mission, she says. “I love the fact that they are made out of our scraps. It’s a full circle.”

When Baabaazuzu, based in Lake Leelanau, Mich., launched 19 years ago, people thought of it as “used clothing” — and they were skeptical, Burns says, but now there is so much interest in upcycling and recycling, the image has changed and demand has surged.

Personally, Burns uses the Paperworks wool cards to send as thank-you notes to her customers.

“Because we’re in a handcrafting business ourselves, to see other people crafting something is fantastic to watch,” she says.

Brewer, who has been on the job three months, adds, “It’s where you would like to be working. I love working. The people here are great and the work keeps you busy, and you get paid for it.”

Expansion to other regions is being considered, according to Lauren Lawson-Zilai, media relations manager at Goodwill Industries in Washington.

“It’s a unique product and business model. … It aligns with our mission. People know Goodwill as a name and a brand, but they think of the thrift store, but we are a leading source of job services and keeping goods out of landfills,” she says.