Whistleblower Desiree Fixler on the DWS 'Greenwashing' Campaign "I Haven’t Seen Such a Cultural Overhaul"
Desirée Fixler, 51, had only been head of sustainability at fund company DWS, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bank, for a few months when then CEO Asoka Wöhrmann fired her in spring 2021. The American had accused management internally of having portrayed DWS as being far "greener" than it actually was. The whistleblower lost the subsequent trial before the Frankfurt Labor Court. Authorities in Germany and the United States are nevertheless following up on Fixler’s "greenwashing” allegations. Fixler has since relocated from New York to London and advises companies, regulators and non-governmental organizations on Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG), which includes areas such as environmental protection, social issues and responsible corporate governance.
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Fixler, your sacking two years ago made big waves. In the meantime, CEO Wöhrmann has had to leave DWS, and Supervisory Board Chair Karl von Rohr is departing at the end of October. Do you feel any satisfaction?
Fixler: No. DWS and Deutsche Bank should have apologized. I’m like Monica Lewinsky. She’s still waiting for an apology from Bill Clinton. But at least I’m rehabilitated.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 20/2023 (May 13th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.
DER SPIEGEL: What do you mean?
Fixler: The (German) Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) raided DWS, six authorities in Germany and the U.S. are investigating. And the market reacted. DWS has significantly lowered the level of its ESG-compliant investments. They wouldn’t do that if there was nothing to my accusations.
DER SPIEGEL: DWS doesn’t comment on the specific allegations, but it says it cooperates continuously and comprehensively with all relevant regulators and authorities. And it claims to have learned its lesson and, for example, no longer buys shares in companies that develop coal projects. Do you buy that?
Fixler: I don’t think those in charge have grasped what really happened. Stefan Hoops, the new head of DWS, has promised that the company will be very transparent about what has come out of the in-house investigation and will publish lots of documents. But the ESG Statement published on March 31 says nothing about the lessons learned. What matters is whether they will implement what they announce. And I have big doubts about that, especially the recent pledge to phase out coal investments. And what about investments in oil and gas companies?
DER SPIEGEL: In 2022, DWS purchased $852 million in shares in climate-damaging corporations like Enbridge, a Canadian pipeline operator, and the shell group, through its "green" funds.
Fixler: That's what I meant. DWS should not boast about successes that don't exist, but instead really change something. And I don't see that so far. Nor, by the way, in the area of diversity. The company is still dominated by men. At least the story has triggered something: It made DWS famous in the U.S. Today, it is considered a synonym for greenwashing there.
DER SPIEGEL: Jörg Eigendorf, the former head of communications at Deutsche Bank, has now been promoted to head of sustainability for the entire group. Could that be a new beginning?
Fixler: No, it’s the same old. I believe folks rise to the top at Deutsche Bank based on personal loyalty rather than their qualifications and experience. I wrote a letter to Eigendorf and DWS supervisory board head von Rohr in 2021 describing in detail what was going wrong with the ESG strategy and how trickery was being used. Both dismissed my concerns and allowed a problem to become a catastrophe for the bank. Both should have resigned at the latest after the raid by the BKA.
DER SPIEGEL: Your critics, particularly at Deutsche Bank, accuse you of not being an ESG expert, but of being egotistical and keen to cash in on your whistleblower role.
Fixler: One hundred percent, I’m working for money. I have been in the financial industry since 1994 in Frankfurt. Today, I help companies with their sustainability governance and disclosure standards. Folks continue to hire me such as regulators in the United Kingdom and Singapore, non-profit organizations, the consulting firm Deloitte and others.
DER SPIEGEL: In Germany, the financial supervisory authority BaFin, the BKA and the Public Prosecutor's Office are investigating DWS for greenwashing. In the U.S., the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Department of Justice are investigating. When do you expect results?
Fixler: I don't know. The authorities seem to have a lot on their plate. What is clear is that DWS and Deutsche Bank should be ready to get the bonuses back from Wöhrmann and von Rohr should the results of the investigation establish any wrongdoing.
DER SPIEGEL: Under Mark Branson, its new president, the BaFin gives the impression that it is taking much tougher action against rule-breakers than before.
Fixler: No, unfortunately, I haven’t seen such a cultural overhaul. But let’s be clear, American bankers are no better or worse than their colleagues in Europe. They just know that they can end up in jail if they break the rules. That disciplines them immensely.
DER SPIEGEL: What did the DWS case trigger in the financial industry?
Fixler: It was a "game changer”: investors, supervisors, even the media now look much more closely at what companies and fund providers promise and what they actually do. Many CEOs have become more cautious.
DER SPIEGEL: That may also be because they do less to boast about.
Fixler: The ship has sailed. No CEO can still afford to ignore climate change and do nothing to make his own company ESG-fit. Otherwise, the profits will stop and investors will leave.
DER SPIEGEL: Is that really the case? In the U.S., the country of your birth, there are Republican governors, above all Ron DeSantis of Florida, who brand the issue as "woke.” Fund managers who want to invest money sustainably are being deprived of their mandate to manage the pension money of civil servants.
Fixler: Yes, this has absurdly become a political issue. But make no mistake: These Republican-ruled Southern states are keen to benefit from Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). The "anti-woke" movement is mainly a ploy. The $400 billion has turned Blue and Red states bright green. And Europe needs to properly respond.
DER SPIEGEL: However, there is a lack of clear regulation as to what may be considered a sustainable investment. No one can keep track of the jumble of national, European and global standards anymore.
Fixler: Absolutely. The Europeans should lead the ESG movement. They are trying hard, but implementation has been a disaster. Europe, the U.S. and the UK are in a tug of war over the best standards, but global companies are struggling to cope. They need clear, binding rules because they ultimately want one thing above all else: to make money. And that’s perfectly fine as long as they’re truthful.
DER SPIEGEL: Your experience has been that whistleblowers in German companies are treated like troublemakers. For years, the German government has failed to implement a European Union whistleblower directive into national law within the deadline. Why are we having such a hard time?
Fixler: In my home in New York and now in London, whistleblowers are much better protected. So, it’s quite strange because Germany is known to have very far-reaching workers’ rights. But in Frankfurt, the financial center, boards of directors and supervisory boards back each other up, and whistleblowers are considered disloyal and ungrateful here. Yet the board should appreciate it when employees draw attention to internal grievances. After all, it shows that someone identifies with their employer. In Germany, it is considered a seal of approval if there are few complaints from whistleblowers. But that only means that employees are afraid to come forward.