Kristin Halvorsen Stands Up For Ethical Business

Kristin Halvorsen
Norway withdraws funds from unethical corporations

It's not easy to stand up to the corporations of the world's only superpower. But Norway's minister of finance, Kristin Halvorsen, did and lives to tell the tale.

Norway is the world's third largest producer of oil, behind Saudi Arabia and Russia. As a result of rising oil prices in the last decade, the small nation of 5 million people has accumulated a surplus of about $300 billion, enough to pay each man, woman, and child a substantial sum. But that's not what the Norwegians did with the surplus. They invested in the nation's future, stashing the oil money in a Government Pension Fund against the day when the oil reserves are depleted. And to avoid overheating their own economy, they decided to invest all the fund's money abroad.

Those are unusual decisions in a get-rich-now world. But in 2004, the Norwegian Parliament followed up with an even more remarkable decision: it unanimously adopted a tough set of ethical guidelines and committed to divesting the fund of stock in companies that didn't meet them.

Of the 21 corporations that have failed to meet the standards so far, 12 are based in the United States. In January, Halvorsen announced that the fund had sold off its holdings of Wal-Mart stock due to "serious/systematic violations of human rights and labor rights," citing the company's alleged willingness to tolerate child-labor violations among its suppliers and obstruct its employees' efforts to unionize.

The mining giant Freeport-McMoRan also is on the divestment list for causing "severe and permanent environmental damage" to Indonesia's rivers. Also among those who have already failed the ethics test are General Dynamics, Northrup Grummond, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and BAE Systems. The fund sold off nearly $1 billion worth of stock in listed companies.

As a result, Halvorsen faced criticism from the U.S. ambassador, Benson K. Whitney, who accused her of unfairly singling out U.S. companies in her screening process. But Halvorsen believes the process is working-foreign ambassadors have been asking what they have to do to keep their firms off the list. Her next targets are rumored to be tobacco firms and those corporations that contribute to global warming.

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