When bothered by vexing social issues, most of us write a check to a charity or put in a few volunteer hours.
Social entrepreneur Peter Thum, on the other hand, launches a business. After working in South Africa in the early 2000s, Thum was distressed after seeing people who didn’t have access to clean drinking water.
He drafted a business plan for Ethos Water, a bottled water company that donates a nickel per bottle sold, and left his consulting job at McKinsey & Company to launch Ethos. Donations go to charities that provide access to clean water.
In 2008, he sold the company to Starbucks for $8 million. To date, Ethos has donated more than $7.38 million to clean water causes, according to the Starbucks website.
When Thum was in Africa visiting some of the projects Ethos funded later that same year, he encountered young men and boys armed with assault rifles. He recalled it as a frightening experience, which also started him thinking about how the widespread conflict and the region’s fixation with illegal weapons could affect Ethos’s efforts. The logical solution seemed to be finding a way to reduce the supply of guns available, especially the popular AK-47s.
Thum came up with an idea–repurpose the guns into something beautiful and far removed from their origins. In 2009, he launched Fonderie 47 to transform AK-47s from Africa into high-end jewelry and watches, then use some of the proceeds to fund the destruction of more weapons in Africa.
Assault rifles are collected from conflicts by the governments of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, along with the United Nations, from combatants who have turned them over. Once these weapons are destroyed, the scrap metal, which belongs to the government, is recycled locally.
One of Fonderie 47’s Inversion Principle timepieces, which sell for $195,000, funds the destruction of 1,000 guns. To date, the company is responsible for taking more than 40,000 guns out of circulation. Thum’s vision in doing so is to make the region safer for aid and development to benefit the people.
“The replacement cost of those weapons is significantly higher than the cost of the original one,” Thum says. “We’re increasing the cost of killing people because we’re increasing the value necessary to have the same number of weapons in circulation.”
But the economics of and attitudes toward guns are different in Africa than in the United States. Thum wanted to launch a similar program focused on the U.S., but faced many issues. While even a cheap gun represented a significant investment for someone in Africa, a new gun in the U.S. might cost less than an iPhone.
He wanted a way to tap the supply of guns that was already in circulation, which he estimates at about 300 million. The Pew Research Center estimates the number somewhere between 270 million and 310 million. There was no way to stem the tide of guns, but Thum said he could fund organizations working to prevent crime and gun violence.
Thum started discussions with various city officials about the possibility of tapping the guns and bullets received through gun buyback programs. He found some officials open to the idea. Starting with existing jewelry designs and the help of two designers he met through friends, he launched New York-based Liberty United in 2013.
Thum and his team receive guns and bullets that have already been broken down or rendered unusable, and re-create them into jewelry that ranges in price from about $85 for a ring fashioned from an old bullet to roughly $1,600 for a silver and gunmetal talon bangle bracelet. Between late 2014 and early 2015, the company will be launching new collections.
Today, the company partners with law enforcement agencies in Newburgh, New York; Syracuse, New York; and Philadelphia. Proceeds support charities that reduce gun violence, including the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, CeaseFirePA, and the Newburgh Armory Unity Center. Between 20% and 25% of the proceeds of each sale, depending on the collection, go to these charities, resulting in the donation of “tens of thousands of dollars” in less than two years, Thum says. In creating opportunities for thoughtful purchases, Thum says he hopes to inspire people to take further action.
“You have this huge problem that is complicated, and many people think is impossible to do anything about,” he says. “Then you have a really interesting industry–the jewelry industry–that people spend billions and billions of dollars on every year to buy things. . . .We can take a percentage of that industry and transform it into focus on thinking about it, activism about it, and doing things about gun violence.”