We should do business like Norway

If you had $600 billion to invest in various businesses, how would you do it? Would you only invest in companies that provided a fair wage for factory workers? Or maybe only businesses that were environmentally friendly? The answer most of us would choose is whatever would make the most money. (Which would probably rule out fair wages and being environmentally friendly.)

Thankfully, Norway isn’t like most of us. Being fortunate enough to have a low population and high reserves in oil, the country has been flush with cash. So much cash that their government has a $600 billion pension fund to invest in various enterprises. (To put it in perspective, that fund is the largest single investor in Europe and the third largest in the world.) And how do they invest it? In companies that don’t violate “humanitarian principles” and “fundamental ethical norms.”

That sounds nice, but what does it really mean? For starters, Norway doesn’t support cluster weapons or landmines. Which means it had to divest from several American arms manufacturers. Companies that produce tobacco aren’t funded either. Other corporations have been removed for illegal logging, river pollution, and environmental abuses. There’s even a watch list for companies like Siemens, which is accused of gross corruption. (In most cases, Norway’s central bank tries to mediate concerns with the business before divesting.) The other big company that Norway has severed ties with is none other than Wal-Mart. In 2006, Norway purged itself of $430 million worth of shares from the retailer. The reason? Serious and systematic labor violations in numerous countries. As of 2012, the fund has stopped doing business with 40 corporations. Instead of sweatshops and pollutants, that money is being spent on things like solar panel production, and renewable energy research.

For a more capitalistic viewpoint on the Norwegian Fund, you should read this wikileaks memo. It was sent between diplomats who were fretting about whether or not ethical investing would hurt American companies. (Unless you’re Wal-Mart or a tobacco baron, it really hasn’t.)

Most of us don’t have that kind of money to invest. But we can decide to follow the Norwegian example and advance human rights and ethics with where we shop. By supporting the companies with good business practices, we punish the ones who misbehave. It won’t completely stop corruption, sweatshops, and environmental offenders, but it will cut into their bottom line. We should do business like Norway.