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North Hills Monthly

Day Owl Switches from Backpacks to Face Masks to Meet COVID Demand

Jul 29, 2020 05:49PM ● By North Hills Monthly magazine

A First Mile™ worker. Photo courtesy Day Owl

By Terri Marshall

In January 2020, when Day Owl launched its online business selling backpacks made from repurposed plastic bottles, no one could have predicted the company would produce 70,000 face shields for healthcare workers by the end of April. It simply wasn’t in the plans. 

When the coronavirus crisis reached Pennsylvania, demand for backpacks become understandably low as the need for personal protection equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers began to rise. Like many companies, Day Owl needed to adapt to stay afloat. Company investor, the Richard King Mellon Foundation, approached Day Owl to ask if they could switch gears to help produce PPE for local hospital networks. 

“We had an established supply chain and equipment to make products, so we pivoted,” said Sam Klein, COO. “Working with engineers from Carnegie Mellon, within one week we had a design for face shields and within three weeks our supply chain was secure, and we were up and running.”

A History of GoodWill

Parent company Thread International manages two lines of business. Day Owl represents the consumer line in the manufacturing of backpacks and other products. First Mile™ sources the supplies through an initiative designed to support poverty-stricken areas in Haiti, Honduras and Taiwan. Locals collect and recycle plastic bottles for income, and once transformed, the bottles become fabrics used for Day Owl products. As a company, Day Owl’s commitment to working only with partners devoted to environmental sustainability practices remains steadfast.

Solving More Than One Crisis

With an intense, endless demand for PPE, Day Owl hired 16 people from the Pittsburgh area—all of whom had been furloughed due to the COVID-19 crisis. By April, they began shipping out thousands of shields a day, making more than 70,000 by the end of the first month.

“A lot of grey hairs and bruised fingers were involved, but it was really rewarding to help during this time and actually put people back to work,” said Klein.

As soon as the need softened for healthcare worker face shields, an uptick began in the demand for face masks. Having pledged to donate 1 million masks to the Pittsburgh community, local insurance corporation Highmark reached out to Day Owl for assistance. 

Working with three different companies with available sewing machines, Day Owl managed to make 125,000 masks within weeks.

In addition to the face shields and the masks manufactured as part of the Highmark partnership, Day Owl continues its work by making quality masks from the same sustainable fabrics for individuals to purchase. After announcing the pre-sale of the masks on its website in June, the company sold more than expected so production has once again ramped up to meet demand.

“We’ve realized this will obviously be a need for the rest of the year so we’re ramping up inventory,” said Klein. 

About Those Backpacks

Understandably, backpacks have taken a back seat to the COVID crisis. 

“With the PPE product demand and the current crisis affecting so many people, it didn’t feel authentic to our brand to continue promoting backpacks,” said Klein. “Besides, no one is going anywhere right now!”

Like any business, Day Owl would like to be making a profit from its backpacks and other products, but for now, the company is satisfied with making a difference.

“At the core of our business is the desire to put people back to work, whether that’s through plastic collection in another country or by hiring people here in Homewood who are unemployable for whatever reason,” said Klein. “It’s a remarkable feeling to be able to help.”