Bra Straps Bootstrap Fair-Trade Business

Friday, September 8, 2006

The operation began last summer, when Styles asked her sister-in-law in Cali, Colombia, to help fix a fashion flub – bra straps that show under tank tops and other shoulder-baring shirts.

A master of beadwork, the woman took a half-hour to make two, adjustable beaded straps that could be attached to a strapless bra with built-in tabs. The straps are meant to be shown.

Styles had been haunted by Colombia’s poverty for years. In Cali, a city of 1.6 million, her sister-in-law’s home overlooked a river filled with sewage, garbage and rats.

But in the straps, Styles suddenly saw the chance to change things, at least for a few women.

The tiny beads look delicate: shades of pale pink, blue and green hand strung and sewn together to form dainty straps for lingerie.

But they’re stronger than they appear, much like the women who spend hours hand making them in South America for Strappity-do-da. The fledgling business is a labor of love started by a woman desperate to help her husband’s family get out of poverty in Colombia, a developing nation with a bloody, violent history marked by drug running and guerrillas.

From her home in Bath Township, Ohio, Shelli Styles has joined a growing number of entrepreneurs with a purpose beyond profit.

Starbucks buys fair-trade coffee to ensure producers get adequate pay and supermarket chain Giant Eagle sells herbal teas marketed by a company that sends money back to its African producers. A number of Web sites sell socially conscious goods, from chocolate made with rain forest-grown cocoa to hot sauce made in Tibet whose sale benefits poor children in the Himalayas.

Styles’ mission is more personal: She aims to educate and empower the struggling women in her husband’s homeland.

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