It is a curious aspect of the Catholic Church in England and Wales that those who wish there to be the maximum room for personal judgement and discretion on matters of faith and morals are also the most keen to promote narrow prescriptive edicts to the faithful on other matters.
Whilst all must take the Churchs social teaching very seriously, by undertaking good works, making real sacrifices to meet charitable obligations and always treating people justly, the Church asks Catholics to make personal, prudential judgements about the detail of such matters. But, according to some, this opportunity for judgement does not stretch to the choice of whether or not to buy Fairtrade products. The purchase of Fairtrade products is often promoted as an obligation. The purchase of alternatives to Fairtrade products has been described by one priest as a sin worse than theft and by another as a deliberate choice to take from the poor.
Furthermore, this supposed obligation of Catholics to buy Fairtrade products is generally extended to a requirement to buy Fairtrade products with a capital F. In other words products that are certified by a body called the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation and approved by the Fairtrade Foundation and often sold, at least in churches and schools, by a commercial, organisation called Traidcraft. As Arundel & Brightons Diocesan website puts it: if it doesn't say Fairtrade, it isn't Fairtrade! Fairtrade status is only granted by the trade body, The Fairtrade Foundation. The rigour of the checks that the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation makes on behalf of the Foundation has been questioned, but we will leave that aside for now.
However, the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation does not have a monopoly of virtue. In fact, there is a healthy market in products that have similar attributes to officially labelled products. Afghan Action, for example, is a model company in the ethical market, working in the most challenging conditions imaginable perhaps too challenging for the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation. It provides extremely good conditions of work for its employees and overcomes numerous challenges to import its products through a suspicious customs service.
The experience of Union Coffee is equally telling. Union Coffee has impeccable ethical standards often considerably better than those required by Fairtade labelled products. Though Union Coffee does sell some Fairtrade labelled coffee, much of its business simply does not fit into the Fairtrade business model which has a number of specific requirements and lim