November 25, 2013

Catholics who believe in economic justice and in caring for the environment have little choice but to purchase fair trade products and avoid the use of bottled water.

That's the view of leading local social justice advocates and even the Vatican. In his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI said people should realize that purchasing is always a moral act, not simply an economic one.

The pope said one's daily consumer role "can be exercised with respect for moral principles without diminishing the intrinsic economic rationality of the act of purchasing."

Bob McKeon, coordinator of the office of social justice for the Edmonton Archdiocese, said fair trade and the avoidance of bottled water create opportunities for Catholics to respond to this call in a small but significant way.

When we make a conscious choice to purchase fair trade items and avoid buying bottled water, "we are putting the values of Catholic social teaching into action," McKeon said.

Val Merchant sells fair trade products at an event in the Catholic Pastoral and Administration Offices.


Val Merchant sells fair trade products at an event in the Catholic Pastoral and Administration Offices.

Sara Farid, regional animator for Development and Peace, said the simplest way a person can contribute to justice and to poverty alleviation is by living a responsible life, which involves making conscious choices.

"When you buy fair trade products you are actually paying the farmers fairly," Farid explained. "You are contributing to a fair treatment and a more just trade system for those farmers that are growing the coffee and other products. You are not exploiting the farmers; you are avoiding the exploitation of farmers."

In an interview, Farid said that when one buys bottled water one is accepting the notion that water can be turned into a commodity and sold to those who can afford it.

Bottled water has both human and environmental impacts, she said. The human impact comes when water is privatized and those who rely on it for their livelihood no longer have access to it. That happens a lot in developing countries, where bottled water companies buy the water sources and then sell it to those who can pay.

"So water is taken from communities that depend and rely on it and given to a different community that can afford to buy bottled water," lamented Farid. "It's essentially taken from those that need it to satisfy someone's luxury and all of that for the sake of profit."

In 2010, she said, there was a resolution in the UN General Assembly to make water a basic human right. Yet 41 countries, including Canada, abstained.

Three years ago Development and Peace conducted a campaign against turning water into a commodity. As a result, many institutions began to avoid the use of bottled water in their premises by installing filtration systems.

The Pastoral Centre of the Diocese of Calgary, for instance, became a bottled water free zone. So did St. Mary's University in Calgary.

A couple of years ago the Pastoral and Administrative Offices of the Edmonton Archdiocese made the decision to install a water filtration system to avoid using bottled water, and many parishes and schools have done the same.

Numerous Catholic schools in Edmonton have installed filtration systems to discourage the use of bottled water, including St. Lucy Elementary and Austin O'Brien High, which set up six water filling stations so students and staff can fill their own reusable water bottles.


"Not drinking bottled water is saving people a lot of money," Farid said. "Especially in our province where we have perfectly good water there is no need at all to be drinking bottled water."

But often when we go to conferences, she continued, "we see loads and loads of (bottled) water and you think, 'Why didn't you all bring your own water from home?'"

As for fair trade, it has no drawbacks at all, Farid contends. "It is a little more expensive but I would say it's worth it if it means that I would pay $2 more but I'm not exploiting someone. I would rather know that I'm not exploiting someone than the other way around."

Sara Farid

Sara Farid

McKeon said Catholics must try to live out the values of the Church's social teaching and that involves thinking about the products we purchase and consume. "And we do that in reference to different values – one being justice to the workers who produce the product," he said.


"On another score, increasingly our Catholic social teaching has a strong environmental ethic – to care for the planet and certainly the bottled water issue raises serious environmental concerns, be it the production of all the bottles and what happens to them."

McKeon said in many parts of the developing world the primary use of water is for bottling. "People don't have access to water but water bottling companies do"

That's wrong, he said, "because water is a basic good and recent social teaching documents say access to water is a human right."

There are times and places where bottled water is necessary. "If you were in the Philippines right now, you would probably be drinking bottled water," McKeon said.

"But in a place like Edmonton with a first class publicly available water system, we don't need to go through all this and buy bottle after bottle of water that may be trucked from a great distance.

"In many cases the public inspection standard on our city water is better than the bottled water we can buy."

Ten to 15 years ago, fair trade was a pretty isolated commodity, recalled McKeon. "We'd buy boxes of it through the old social justice office and sell it through church basements and the distributor would come from the other end of the country. Now you can buy a whole variety of fair trade coffees in major supermarkets across the city."

By buying fair trade products you are not solving the economic justice problems of the world but "you are doing a little piece," McKeon said. "It's part of the puzzle. It's a start. It's not the conclusion."

Val Merchant, a Development and Peace activist and member of St. Albert Parish, said people should buy fair trade products because the distributors of fair trade buy directly from workers' cooperatives and pay the workers a fair price for their products, whether it's dry fruit, coffee, tea or sugar.

When Merchant began selling fair trade products a decade ago, the practice was almost unknown. Now Edmonton is a fair trade city and almost all the supermarkets and drug stores have a fair trade section.

"That's the goal," Merchant said. "The goal is to make fair trade an equal partner in the trading world."

As for bottled water, Merchant said, "We are commercializing water when we buy bottled water. We are putting a price on a basic need and a basic right."

Bottled water is almost entirely about profit, he said. "When you look at bottled water, it cost a water bottling company about two cents to fill the bottle with water and then they are selling it for anywhere up to $2.50.

"What a tremendous profit and that doesn't even account for the recycling process of the bottles!"

In Alberta, 87 per cent of recyclable containers are recycled; in Canada as a whole it is about 26 per cent. In the U.S., the number is even lower because there is no refund for a water bottle.

"We are filling our garbage dumps with these bottles that take years and years, maybe up to 100 years, to decompose and for what? For the profit and the convenience of buying these bottles rather than using recyclable containers, which we can refill."

Merchant works in Catholic schools promoting Development and Peace action campaigns and is impressed when "I see a number of students that carry refillable containers and that's excellent."

Merchant said Father Albert Lacombe School in St. Albert became a bottled water-free zone three years ago despite efforts by Nestle to discredit its stance.

As well, he and Farid once made a presentation on water at M.E. Lazerte High School "and they changed their water fountains to make them capable of being used to refill water bottles."