CD 014: Is it obligatory to buy Fair Trade products?

Many Catholic organisations promote Fair Trade products but I have some misgivings about the scheme. Is it a sin not to buy Fair Trade products?

Criticism of Fair Trade comes from both ends of the political spectrum. Some free market economists argue that Fair Trade interferes with the proper working of supply and demand and that other producers are adversely affected by the distortion of prices. Some advocates of more sweeping changes to unjust trading argue that Fair Trade is not radical enough because it works within the existing system of trade and has partnerships with multinational companies.

Those in favour of Fair Trade would reply that it is a market-responsive model of trade and that other producers are positively, not negatively affected. They would consider that it is better to promote realistic and achievable change rather than waiting for the whole trading system to be made fairer.

Fair Trade is widely supported by Catholic organisations, and many parishes try to use Fair Trade products for as many of their supplies as possible, in addition to encouraging parishioners to buy Fair Trade goods. Many Catholics see Fair Trade as an important part of their work to promote social justice in a practical way.

We do have an obligation to justice, charity, and the works of mercy but we have a legitimate freedom in the way that we choose to fulfil these obligations. A person who generally agreed with the case made by Fair Trade, would probably feel some sense of duty about buying Fair Trade tea and coffee. Nevertheless it would be somewhat rigorist to consider it a sin not to do so.

A Catholic could be sincerely critical of Fair Trade and exercise their prudential judgement not to support the movement. There are a number of possible reasons for making such a judgement that would not involve any denial of the Church’s social teaching or of our duty of fraternal justice and charity. Within the limits set by the Church’s magisterium, Catholics are free to take different views on political, economic, and social questions. So I would say we can hold off from adding to the commandments “Thou shalt not buy PG Tips.”

Catholic Dilemmas column published in the Catholic Herald
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