What do you call a manufacturing business that has managed to thrive while keeping its entire production local and maintaining a “green” mentality and a true sense of community? In Maine, some would call it miraculous.

Sea Bags produces a line of high quality tote bags made from recycled sails. Owners Hannah Kubiak and Beth Shissler are adamant about keeping production of their product in Maine, and in Portland in particular; some similar products are produced overseas. “We completely understand why companies have to get products made overseas,” they said in an interview via email. “It is very expensive to produce in the U.S. and compete. Our strategy has always been to manufacture not just in the U.S., but in Maine. We know that could ultimately limit us, but as native Mainers who both left the state at one point to be gainfully employed, it’s important to us to have an exciting company for local talent — and we have great talent!”

According to Kubiak and Shissler, “The biggest differences [between us and other similar companies] we think, are the values we hold as a company. We give back to our community:  We support Maine Cancer Foundation and Sail Maine. We are supporting the U.S Women’s Team 7, sailing in the Beijing Olympics. We employ a very active green mission statement and are always working towards that goal”¦we are about sustainability in every sense of the word.”

Another facet of Sea Bags’ community outreach is its connection to the Maine Correctional Institute for Women. Through the Institute’s industries program, inmates construct bags for the company from kits that are sent to them weekly.  After the bags are returned they undergo three more processes at the Sea Bags workshop. This relationship has helped Sea Bags keep the work in Maine. “We heard from a friend that they were starting the Industries Program for the women and felt it might be a good fit,” said Shissler and Kubiak. “After visiting with the women we realized most of us are all just one bad decision away from being there, and that if our sails get a second chance, the women should too.”
The Sea Bags owners had to change their ideas of manufacturing in order to make the program work for them, but are glad they did.  “It’s good that our girls get to be a part of that and see that relationship,” they said. “We encourage any business to try it.”

Sea Bags is located amid the working waterfront of Portland’s Custom House Wharf, nestled among seafood dealers and fishing boats. “It’s a priority for us to support the local waterfront because we are here — and it’s part of our make-up personally and professionally,” Kubiak and Shissler said. To that end, Sea Bags offers competitive pricing to local fishermen, sailors and business owners who may need repairs to riding sails, bait barrel covers, awnings, boom covers or other items requiring their expertise and industrial sewing machines. And while they reserve the right to turn away any job, they do try to keep their rates fair so that local lobstermen can afford their services.

“It’s important for us to stay on the waterfront,” said Kubiak.

Kubiak started Sea Bags in 1999, and Shissler came on board in 2006. In that time they have turned Sea Bags into a global company, selling their product to small gift and fashion boutiques all over the United States, several nationally known catalogs including Red Envelope, Travelsmith and Restoration Hardware, and foreign countries including Canada and two new agreements with retailers in Italy and Japan. In fact, “last summer we were pursued by many Japanese companies,” said Shissler. The team interviewed three companies and settled on one that felt the best. “We really wanted someone whom we could grow with over time,” she said.  The new partnership will allow Sea Bags to try new things, coming up with new products.

For more information see the July 2003 issue of Working Waterfront, or visit www.seabags.com.