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After a brief stint at advisory firm Edelman, the 43-year-old joined JPMorgan in February to head up the bank’s ESG practice in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Umunna, who was MP for Streatham from 2010 to 2019, now spends most of his days advising big companies on how to make sure they are green, well governed, and treating people well.
He’s also charged with making sure JPMorgan is practising what it preaches. It’s a big job: ESG was already hot but COP26 has supercharged interest in ethical and sustainable business.
“There has been nothing short of a revolution,” Umunna says when we meet on the 31st floor of JPMorgan’s Canary Wharf headquarters.
The boom means Umunna has one of the busiest diaries at the bank. Finding time to meet is a squeeze.
“One of the things I actually love about the role is it’s just so international,” he says. “I’ve had the opportunity to go and see clients from the UAE to Germany — I was in Stockholm last week.”
Is all that air travel really good for the environment?
“We are conscious of that,” he adds quickly. “I mean, there’s nowhere near as much travel [as there used to be].”
Umunna still has the easy charm and charisma that made him so promising in the Commons and led the press to dub him Britain’s answer to Obama. If you didn’t know he was an MP, you’d think he was a lifelong investment banker.
His easy waltz into the upper echelons of the City may smack of the revolving door between politics and business. But Umunna argues he’s well qualified: he was an employment lawyer in the City before becoming an MP and spent four years as shadow business secretary under Labour leader Ed Miliband.
“I’ve been involved in ESG in different forms for the last 20 years,” he says.
This is in fact Umunna’s second stint at JPMorgan — he briefly worked there at the very beginning of his career in the equity derivatives division. What Umunna is peddling now would have been regarded “not even peripherally [but] as truly radical” by the traders and bankers he worked with back then.
“This was before the global financial crash. Things are very, very different.”
Indeed, banks are now tying executive bonuses to green targets — a far cry from the casino banking of the pre-2008 era.
What’s driven this seismic shift? As with many revolutions, it’s the kids.
“I speak to asset managers and investors a lot,” Umunna says. “They’re all saying things about this demographic change, this huge asset transfer from baby boomers to millennials and younger cohorts.”
Young people today don’t just want the family wealth to grow, they want their cash to save the world.
“People who work in financial services are human beings as well,” Umunna says. “I’ve got a one- and a four-year-old and I genuinely do worry about what we will be bequeathing the future generations.”
It’s an alluring message but critics say it’s just a sales pitch. ESG gets accused of being little more than a box ticking exercise that enables ‘greenwashing’. ESG funds hold oil stocks, for example.
Umunna rejects this but admits the sector has been a “bit of a Wild West.”
“The labels which were attached to products and investments were fairly liberally used. I think now there is more scrutiny, because it’s a maturing market. And investors have been more demanding.”
Then there are the claims that the City and business more generally are moving too slowly. People like Umunna spend time helping oil and gas companies draw up plans on how to transition away from fossil fuels over the coming decades. Activists want them to ditch it now.
Umunna calls this “a kind of Twittersphere binary debate”. Reality is much more complex and thorny than that, he argues.
“Oil and gas majors over decades have been responsible for lifting living standards and changing the way we all live. Some would have you believe that, some family that has had a history of working on an oil rig in the North Sea, somehow they’re now terrible evil people because they are working for a fossil fuel company.”
Umunna is an optimist. Understanding of the issues is developuing “month to month” in the City, he says, and cites pressure on companies from investors to develop science-based targets on going net zero. Aviva recently made headlines for threatening to divest from fossil fuel companies unless they got serious about transition, for example — something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
“I think it’s a terrible shame if this is simply seen as a kind of negative burden on society,” Umunna says. “I think it’s a huge opportunity to change the way we live and is a business opportunity for many new companies and more established companies alike. There’s a big positive story to be told here as well.”