Former DWS group sustainability officer Desiree Fixler successfully shone a light on the firm’s “egregious ESG greenwashing” but now faces the challenges of being a corporate whistleblower, said friend and Oxford Saïd Business School Professor Robert Eccles.
Fixler was appointed to the newly-created role in September 2020 but was dismissed the following April after raising concerns with the DWS board about the firm’s ESG risk management system relying on outdated technology.
German regulator BaFin then launched a probe into Fixler’s claims that $900bn of assets being ESG-aligned in the firm’s 2020 annual report was misleading, however, DWS said it “firmly [rejected] the allegations being made by a former employee”.
Recounting the events that followed, Eccles (pictured) said in a LinkedIn post Fixler was a “brave whistleblower who called out the egregious ESG greenwashing by DWS”.
“They tried to throw her under the bus by leaking a memo to Bloomberg saying she was fired for incompetence after just eight months on the job.
“How did that turn out for them? Well, for starters, DWS and its controlling parent Deutsche Bank were raided by the German federal police. CEO Asoka Woehrmann was ousted following the federal police raid and a number of other senior executives involved in their shenanigans have left.
“COO Mark Cullen, CIO Stefan Kreuzkamp, head of communications Adib Sisani and other ESG and strategy folks have been either demoted or have left as well. Also, it has been reported Karl von Rohr, the chairman of the supervisory board of DWS, is likely to leave.”
DWS declined to comment.
The raid Eccles refers to took place at the start of June last year, when 50 officers from the Frankfurt public prosecutor, BaFin and the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) entered the firm’s offices as part of an investigation into potential prospectus fraud on its ESG products.
DWS’s 2021 annual report declared a marked-down figure of €115bn in ESG assets, down 75% from before allegations began to surface.
“Desiree won the battle but is now fighting the bigger war of what life is like for a whistleblower,” Eccles continued. “It is not an easy one at all.
“Desiree has gotten a lot of attention and many people want to talk to her. But no financial services firm has offered her a job or indicated any interest in doing so. Being a whistleblower is a double-edged sword. Lots of fame but not lots of fortune.”
In an accompanying Forbes interview with Eccles, Fixler said: “When the story first broke, I think people wanted to learn how to avoid being the next DWS or avoid being whistle blown by someone in their organisation and maybe how to deal with such a situation if it happened. But they were afraid of hiring me.
“Since DWS hugely revised downward their ESG claims in their last annual report and I embraced advisory work, companies have been a lot more comfortable hiring me in that consultant capacity to help them evolve their ESG investing platform or to tackle greenwashing, usually pre-emptively.
“I did what I did because I did not want to get in trouble with the regulators and authorities and I did not want the firm to get in trouble. I was also really irritated with all the greenwashing happening across the industry, not just at DWS. I thought it was time to shine the spotlight on a lot of corporate ESG BS.”
Speaking on the challenging process of being a whistle-blower, Fixler said a person’s “professional and probably personal life is changed forever”. Carrying out such a campaign requires understanding your rights and if you can file for protection with a regulator, identifying a good lawyer, influential journalists to investigate your claims and effective social media communication.
Almost two years on, Fixler now chairs Venture ESG, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) for the adoption of ESG in venture capital and is a member of the Financial Conduct Authority’s (FCA) ESG Advisory Committee and the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) Institute’s ESG Committee.
Last December, DWS joined other asset managers in downgrading 10 Paris-Aligned Benchmark (PAB) ETFs from Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR) Article 9 to ‘light green’ Article 8 ahead of ‘level 2’ of the regulation being implemented this year.
Last week, ETF Stream revealed the firm launched a seven-strong range of thematic impact ETFs targeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).