A woman attending a recent “Respect Life” event found herself wondering about the T-shirts that were for sale. She wondered who produced them, and if they paid a fair wage with decent working conditions.

She understood that respecting life extended to all of our brothers and sisters in our global community and she was asking the right questions.

This is the basis of Catholic social teaching, which states that every human being has dignity and that workers have rights to fair wages and safe working conditions.

We find these thoughts echoed in recent words of Pope Francis, particularly in his address to the United Nations General Assembly and in his encyclical, Laudato Si’.

“People say that Pope Francis is so revolutionary in what he does, but it is really part of Catholic social teaching,” said kathleen-domingo, associate director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Pope Benedict XVI called on us to act “in the light of reason, guided by charity and truth” and reminded us that “every economic decision has a moral consequence” in Caritas in Veritate.

These thoughts are built upon the earlier encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII (Rerum Novarum, 1891) and Pope Paul VI (Populorum Progressio, 1967) and are reflected in the seven principles of Catholic social teaching. All of these are built upon the teachings of Jesus Christ, who instructed us to love our neighbor as ourselves.

“We listen to Pope Francis’ words, and he is encouraging us to take personal responsibility,” said Domingo. “We go to the grocery store and don’t necessarily look beyond just either what’s on sale, what’s convenient or what we prefer and say ‘Hold on a second, what I’m doing here has a moral dimension.’

“The pope has spoken very eloquently about that recently, and also in Laudato Si’, about this culture of consumerism that we have. It is a consumerism at what cost?” she asked.

Domingo states that there are many ways to look at the moral aspect of making purchases.

“Fair Trade items are very important to look at. It is also important to shop and support your local businesses; supporting people right in your own community,” Domingo said.

Purchasing products that are certified “Fair Trade” ensures that you are purchasing products which was produced by workers in developing countries who received a fair, living wage under safe and healthy work conditions. Fair Trade helps build communities in developing countries by supporting the dignity of workers and helping keep families together.  

“It’s a question of brothers and sisters that we’ll never meet. How we live affects them. How do we think about them when we live our lives?” said Joan Harper, director of Fair Trade LA. “The idea that, by what I buy, I can immediately have an impact on lives of families and children that I’ll never meet really struck me.”

Fair Trade LA is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Members take their message out to catechetical leaders in churches throughout the archdiocese.

“They are talking to students, who are then talking to their families. Let’s get these young kids to understand that they can have a big impact in the world,” Harper said. “They need to ask questions: ‘What am I wearing? What am I eating? Who made this and under what conditions?’

“You just plant a seed and things just go from there,” Harper said. “Change has happened. It is very much global solidarity in real life practice. We see progress with more awareness and the economics of supply and demand. If there is more awareness and education, there will be more demand. If people ask for things, then there will be more products on the shelves.”

Both Domingo and Harper stressed the importance of awareness and education to make socially responsible choices in the marketplace.

“They have to know enough to ask why. Once you know, you can’t un-know. The whole value of everything we do is education, as broadly as we can do it, whether it’s showing them products, having a product producer speaking, looking at a video, even just talking to people,” said Harper.

“Pope Francis reminds us that we’re not talking about things in hypothetical terms. We are talking about real men and women and real families in developing countries,” said Domingo. “This is affecting real people who are trying to raise and educate their children. That puts a different dimension on it. I can buy this thing that is made in some factory in China, or I can buy this thing that costs more, but it’s Fair Trade.”

Pope Francis holds everyone responsible, she said.

“You can’t read Laudato Si’ and not feel challenged to take it into the pantry and into the market and say, ‘Ok, am I making choices that are responsible?’ Not only does he call us to support sustainable and authentic human development, especially in developing countries, but he also calls all of us to look at our culture of waste really meaningfully,” Domingo said.

Pope Francis has breathed new life into the idea of “reuse, reduce and recycle” by reminding us that there is a moral dimension to it and drawing our attention to the actual human persons on the other end of the equation, she said.

“Hopefully the Pope Francis effect is going to lead people all across the board to re-examine some of our everyday practices,” said Domingo.