Honouring the career of Triodos Chair, Marilou van Golstein Brouwers

Medal awarded for services to sustainable finance over a thirty-year career in the sector.

It’s rare for anyone in finance to be lauded by the Queen when they leave their company. But when a reception was held at the KIT Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam (which houses sustainable economic development initiatives like the SDGs) earlier this month to mark the stepping down of Marilou van Golstein Brouwers as Chair of Triodos Investment Management, Queen Maxima of the Netherlands was there! And Van Golstein Brouwers received an unexpected honour from the Mayor of her hometown who presented her with a medal (a ‘lintje’ in Dutch) for the Order of Orange-Nassau, a chivalric title for people who have earned special merit in society.
Talking to RI, Van Golstein Brouwers says excitedly: “It was a big surprise for me.”
The two worked together back in 2005 (Maxima was a Princess then) during the UN International Year of Microcredit, which highlighted it as an instrument for socioeconomic development and progressed institutional investing in the asset class. Van Golstein Brouwers has been around at pivotal times in the development of responsible investment.
When she joined Triodos Bank in 1990 it had just 20 people against almost 1,500 today.
And her commitment was personal and tenacious. She started her career as a commodity trader with Cargill where she says she learnt how the financial system worked, and encountered some of the problems in the world food system. She then joined a small private bank where she was running money for high-net-worth individuals and pension funds. At the time, she says, an investment mentor told her that the way the financial system worked was simple: “All you need to know is when greed turns to fear and make sure you’re out before it does, and in before it turns again.”
Says Van Golstein Brouwers: “There’s a lot in that for the way the financial markets work, but for me it started asense of the disconnect between the way that finance interacts with the real economy and real people.” Consequently, she sought a job that connected these elements. She applied for a position at Triodos, but didn’t get the job at first. She then volunteered to work for free for a couple of months to demonstrate her willing. She was hired shortly afterwards and started in what she says was then a “small, but very entrepreneurial green bank.” Her investment experience was immediately put to work in launching the bank’s first investment fund, effectively the pre-cursor of Triodos Investment Management. It was an organic agriculture fund investing in land in the Netherlands for leasing to growers. She says the fund raised its capital target quickly and subsequently attracted the attention of the Dutch Ministry of Finance, which was interested in the then relatively new concept of attracting private investment money for socially valuable projects. Indeed, the Ministry responded with a tax break for green investments that still exists; an example of positive knock-on effects. The asset management arm of Triodos now runs more than €4.2bn in assets across a suite of SRI, sustainable food and agri, inclusive finance and energy and climate funds. She says this reflects the broadening of the sector from SRI funds focused on negative screening through ESG integration and on to a large number of products with clear positive impacts: “The move to invest into specific impact companies has grown hugely, but it is still not enough. The challenge is that we need to move faster, and the notion that ‘all’ investments have impact – potentially positive and negative – needs to be widespread. We can’t settle on large institutions doing a bit of impact and then nothing changing in the rest of their portfolios!”
She thinks change can come if institutions think differently about the concept of impact risk/return via
real long-term thinking. Another mind-set shift she’d like to see from investors is over the perceived versus real risks of investing in emerging markets: “The risks are often lower and more manageable than expected, and it is in these regions where we really need to see significant changes happen in terms of sustainability. We need to act, move forward…maybe even make mistakes, but learn from them: the potential rewards in terms of financial sustainability are huge. A question I’m always asked around impact investing is whether there are enough projects to invest in. It’s a funny question really because the needs are enormous and the entrepreneurial spirit is large, but what we need is capital to back these necessary developments!”
Alongside the UN Year of Microcredit, she says another personal stand-out career moment is her involvement in the 2007 meetings of the Rockefeller Foundation that led to creation of ‘impact investing’. More generally, she cites the launch of the SDGs and the signing of the Paris climate agreement as sustainability progress highlights.
Her zeal for pushing forward sustainable finance is undimmed as she winds down the professional commitments. While she officially left the role as Chair ofTriodos Investment Management on January 1 this year – she will stay on at Triodos for another year to establish a new entity focusing on investments in new impact opportunities and the development of new forms of gift money activities. Its aim is to explore the potential of the regenerative power of money. What can be achieved if we lend, invest or even give money that has as its primary objective to make pioneering initiatives possible? She is also working with Sir Ronald Cohen on The Global Steering Group for Impact Investment (GSG) – the successor to the Social Impact Investment Taskforce established under the UK´s presidency of the G8, now with 21 countries plus the EU as members. Her personal remit is on sustainable entrepreneurship.
Another question she says she is often asked is whether she’s hopeful about the future given the career trajectory she has taken. She summarises: “Generally I am hopeful, because that’s my nature and because we must be. BUT, regarding the continually degrading environment, the question makes me think of Greta Thunberg and her line: “We don’t want your hope, we want you to panic”. She’s right. So I guess I’m halfway between hope and panic!