With an innate curiosity and a love for travel, Elizabeth Suda—merchandiser, designer, and native New Yorker—left her corporate job at Coach, Inc. to travel around the world. She landed in Laos, consulting for a social enterprise company—and there, she made an amazing discovery that inspired her to start an impact-based business of her own.
Now, Elizabeth is the founder of ARTICLE 22, a design company that works with local artisans around the world to create products that are sustainable, respectful of cultural customs, and natural to their lifestyle—and can be sold around the world. The proceeds from each ARTICLE 22 purchase go back to the community where it was made, supporting the livelihoods of the artisans.
Project peaceBOMB is one of the most important and moving collections that’s come out of ARTICLE 22. Using materials from the “Secret War” on Laos during the Vietnam War era, artisans now create beautiful jewelry that both gives back and starts a conversation.
We wanted to learn more about how these projects came to be, and Elizabeth’s inspiring career—from New York to Laos and back again. Read on to hear her story.
How did your career progress from Coach, Inc. to ARTICLE 22 and Project peaceBOMB?
I graduated from college into an internship which became a job in the Merchandising Department at Coach, Inc. Working closely with the product, I noticed labels which read: Made in India, Made in China. This got me thinking about where our products come from, how they are made, and by whom. I started thinking about sustainability and the environment, and I developed a hunch: That design in combination with a consumer market could possibly solve problems.
So I left my job and took a trip across the world. I went to Laos prepared, but without a plan. I knew there was a rich history of weaving and natural dyeing, and I wanted to learn as much as I could about the potential of these crafts to economically empower the women that make them.
While living in Laos, it became clear that many of the people I met were poor because they lacked opportunity and market access. They didn’t necessarily need new skills or, at the other end of the spectrum, sheer charity. In particular, what artisans needed was a way to leverage their existing skills into small sustainable businesses that fit into their natural way of life.
So, what started as a trip to see the world and learn about economic development ended with an idea and a new beginning—to start a social enterprise, ARTICLE 22.
How did you get the idea for Project peaceBOMB?
It was happenstance. I was doing textile-related research for a Swiss NGO, Helvetas, as part of their Rural Income through Sustainable Energy (RISE) Project. They had just brought sustainable energy through hydropower to the village and wanted to help villagers use the energy productively, to help generate income. Supporting handcraft development is one way to do this, since many farmers have weaving, basketmaking, and other skills which they use in their every day lives.
While in the village, I saw other artisans working behind their stilted homes under grass-roofed huts. I was curious, and I soon learned that they were melting bombs in their homemade earthen kilns and recasting them into spoons.
I had known of Laos’s history as a theatre of conflict during the Vietnam War, and even that it was a Secret War, which left the country the most heavily bombed per capita in the world. But seeing “rocket mortar” written in English across a piece of shrapnel and watching the artisans transform deadly pieces of history into spoons—something useful—I felt this story had to be told. And, really, in an instant I thought of making a bracelet. It was just one of those moments.
As I did more research, I learned that 30% of the 2 million tons of bombs dropped on Laos didn’t detonate, and I felt it made sense to connect the bracelet made by artisans to the larger issue of unexploded weapons in Laos. What if Americans and people the world over could “buy back” the bombs?
So, while ARTICLE 22 focuses on community development through handmade fashion, peaceBOMB also has a charity component. With each purchase, the buyer donates the equivalent of the cost of clearing three square meters of bomb-littered land.
What is the inspiration for the design of your products?
The key to my design process is actually limitation. The limitation of an existing, but perhaps wounded, object inspires resourcefulness and a different type of creativity than when you have any material at your disposal. It becomes about solving a problem. And then, suddenly, there is not only an object, but also a story.
What does “ARTICLE 22” mean?
ARTICLE 22 is the 22nd article of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It reads:
Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization…of the economic, social, and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.
The declaration was passed in 1948 after WWII to lay out the rights of individuals the world over and the need for effort and cooperation, two things that take work.
And it provides inspiration for the work that we do—essentially, ARTICLE 22 is about collective action toward culturally and environmentally sustainable development. With such a disparity in development across the world, I believe it is key to come together not only across borders, but also across disciplines to learn from one another and realize that the giving and receiving happens in both directions regardless of economic advantage or disadvantage.
With this in mind, peaceBOMB is equally about engaged consumers as it is about active artisans maintaining their social-cultural way of life while actively participating in the change process.
Your story is so inspiring. Any advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs?
Have patience and embrace the process—development work takes time.