ESG: A cautionary tale for the Lionesses?

Julia Dreblow says the tide has turned for women’s football, like it did for ESG

English spectators enjoying a win at stadium.


Julia Dreblow, director, SRI Service, founder, Fund EcoMarket

The Lionesses’ recent European Championship victory was undoubtedly a landmark moment for women’s football in the UK. From almost nowhere just a few short years ago half the country recently found themselves watching the team beat Germany in a cup final, with many flocking to Trafalgar Square and heralding them as heroes.

Some of the post-tournament analysis has made it clear this was of course not an overnight success. Lots of hard work had gone before. And the history sounded nauseating. The game had been banned for 50 years, ‘people’ said it would never catch on, and even for this tournament they were refused access to major stadia. All this sounded rather familiar to me.

For most of my life people who cared about the planet were called ‘tree huggers’. Those in investment, like myself, were mostly treated as outsiders, attracting a mixture of mostly passive-aggressive responses, and occasional sympathy. How could we be so naïve as to think what we were doing to the planet – and people – mattered?  Hadn’t we read the manual? 

Those of us who worked in the area knew this would change. The planet is finite and at some point a crunch would come, and part of our job was to push for a dramatic change of direction before that time. We also knew that performance was generally better than people thought and that clients were stickier, and therefore more profitable.

We also had the advantage of mostly being collaborative and keen to share opinions and experiences – regularly clustering at UKSIF meetings to recharge – ahead of returning to the deeply competitive world of investment. Even when the financial crisis hit and many of us were removed from our posts most, in typically determined fashion, we found new ways to succeed. 

Drive it home

In 2015, the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement was our watershed moment. Once policymakers started to signal their interest, everybody wanted to be involved.  

Much has changed since then. Sustainability, and in particular climate risk, is now far better understood than it was. There is also a lot more information available now, although science, fact and opinions are too often conflated, and there is plenty of evidence that many investors are not as well versed in sustainability as they claim. 

But we also now have the benefit of seven years of smart and determined newcomers, many of whom I am certain would not have given the financial sector a second glance previously.  

The backlash is now well underway, both from those who say we have gone too far and those who know we are moving far too slowly. 

Some are fighting to maintain the status quo, notably in the US. Some are calling out ‘greenwashing’ – often fiercely. Greenwash is often the result of cynical and intentional action, but much is also the result of inexperience and the penny having not quite dropped. As an industry we need pay more attention to which is which. Companies, like people, must be able to make mistakes and move on swiftly. And, frankly, we need these companies in the tent.

Top of their game

Which brings me back to ‘women’s football’, or is it ‘football for women’ – a rebrand somewhat reminiscent of ethical > sustainable > impact > ESG.

Bearing in mind that I was once a rather enthusiastic (Spurs) football fan – before I married an Arsenal fan – and as a child I could not understand why I wasn’t allowed to be part of a football team like my brothers – I am delighted the women’s game has just had its 2015 moment.

The next few years will doubtless be interesting for them. Getting the balance between commercialisation and authenticity, the ‘right kind of growth’, won’t be easy.   

But many of the people who have got them to where they are today could, and should, be aiming to go a lot further. FIFAs governance record is far from exemplary. We know diversity improves businesses, so let’s hope a meaningful number of women make it to the very top of the beautiful game. They clearly know what ‘better’ and ‘good’ look and feel like.

The WSL’s battle may not be up there with the fight against climate change, but it would be churlish to ignore the social relevance of the world’s favourite sport. Family-friendly match days, and endless singing and dancing are a pleasure to behold.

Latest Stories