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Force for Good: Fashion Offers Chance to Buy Back the Bombs

/ Source: NBC News

Dirty scrap metal from the other side of the world isn’t what comes to mind when you think of high-end jewelry. But it’s exactly what inspired Elizabeth Suda to create Article 22, a company that turns unexploded bomb parts into bracelets and other "ethical" jewelry pieces.

The scraps come from Laos, the most heavily bombed country in the world with over 270 million U.S. bombs dropped during the Vietnam War, and where Suda – after leaving a job as a marketer for a high-end fashion label in New York – spent six months studying local craft, textiles, and artistry in 2008.

In a village outside of Vientiane, the city where she lived, Suda met a group of artisans that were melting aluminum leftovers into spoons using an earthen-made kiln.

“They were made of plane parts, the magazine of a rifle, and other scrap metal,” Suda said. One of the metal parts she found was engraved in English: rocket mortar.

“[I realized that] history didn’t end when history books said it did,” Suda said. “We all think of the Vietnam War ending in 1975, that’s 40 years ago in April, and the reality is there’s a legacy of war that extends beyond the dates that we have in our minds.”

Right away, Suda said she was inspired to help bring the story full circle and literally “buy back the bombs” and the wreckage they created. “I wanted to create a bracelet that would allow us to tell that story, to learn from the past while moving forward,” she said.

Today, Article 22 – named after the universal declaration of human rights – is doing just that. With cheeky items that include necklaces that read “Peace is the Bomb,” Suda and co-founder Camille Hautefort have begun to carve a niche in a consumer market that is increasingly conscious of where and how the goods they buy are made.

A portion of profit from every Article 22 item goes to the artisans themselves, a local community fund, and a professional company that works to demine the approximately 80 million bombs that still haven’t detonated in Laos. According to one official estimate, at the current rate of removal, it will take nearly 300 years to rid the country of mines.

“To me, there’s no conflict between doing good and making money."

“The idea is to engage as many consumers who are concerned with both ethics and aesthetics as we can to participate in clearing the unexploded ordnances, and at the same time bring income to the community that makes it,” Suda said.

It’s a business model that Suda hopes companies – small and large – will continue to embrace.

“I would definitely say that at some point I hope the term social enterprise is irrelevant,” she said. “To me, there’s no conflict between doing good and making money. Between sustainability and economics – the two go hand-in-hand.”

Suda worked with local artisans in Laos to develop a design that could be manufactured locally and sold globally.Courtesy Article22

For Suda, it was her background in fashion and her love of history that led her down this current path. “I never thought I was going to start a business – I never thought I was destined to be an entrepreneur,” Suda said. “But when I look back, it does make sense in some ways.”

Even back in her days as a fashion marketer, Suda said she “had thought about the idea that maybe fashion could engage people and help them look good, but also engage people and help them do good.”

But the production process for these pieces can be challenging, Suda said.

“Today, we do all of the design out of New York,” she said. “It’s not easy to work with this particular metal. You can’t sodder it. It’s not as malleable. You can’t attach other metals to it.”

An example of the ordnance and scrap metal Suda and her team use to make their jewelry.Courtesy Article22

“The artisans use ash from the fire from the night before, and they put that into a wooden box that then becomes a mold,” Suda explained. “That mold is made by mixing the ash with water, and then pouring molten metal into that mold.”

What can’t be finished in Laos is done by a silversmith in New York, but it’s the artisans’ involvement that is most important to Suda.

“Article 22 designs, produces, and distributes products with stories that give back to the people that make them,” she said. “Our aim is to help these communities develop in a sustainable way that respects their social fabric, their culture, and their environment.”

Suda with local partners in Laos in 2010.Courtesy Article22