The debate over corporate social responsibility (CSR) tends to be a Trans-Atlantic affair, with Europeans nagging Americans to catch up as we are way too far behind on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues. Meanwhile companies in emerging economies like Brazil, India, and East Asia are joining the CSR bandwagon, and wonder why Europe gets all the glory while these other regions of the world host plenty of companies that have very respectable corporate responsibility agendas.
Meanwhile, another region of the world is completely overlooked. Southeastern Europe, or the Balkans, lacks the economic punch of their Western and Central European cousins; and folks who salivate over social good flock to far more glamourous Africa, Latin America, or Asia. Nevertheless, SE Europe is a fantastic secret, full of stunning scenery, fresh and natural food, fascinating people, and highly skilled and educated workers. Civil wars, ethnic tension, environmental degradation, corruption, and poverty are huge challenges, but leaders in social entrepreneurship and CSR have emerged in nations like Bulgaria, Bosnia, and Serbia.
To that end, I had the chance to meet Dessislava Todorova, the Editor in Chief at CSR Bulgaria, while I traipsed through the Balkans several weeks ago. She recently was the runner up in the Global Reporting Initiative’s (GRI) case study competition, and has emerged as a leading voice of CSR in her proud nation of 6 million, wedged between Greece, the Black Sea, Romania, and Serbia.
Triple Pundit: What inspired you to get involved with the world of CSR?Dessislava Todorova: First of all, I have always dreamed of a job closely connected to society and helping people. But somehow I started studying business and economics and tried to find my place in this enormous field. And thus I became interested in CSR and sustainability – the future of economic and social development. It brings back the confidence in business, yet it consists of so many challenges and innovation. As it is still something new in Bulgaria, it brings the wind of change and hope of something better and helps you to make the difference. CSR gives me the opportunity to change what I do not like and to feel useful and appreciated.
3p: What are the most important issues that Bulgaria faces regarding environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues?
DT: In the past few years Bulgaria has made continued success in this field, but still faces many obstacles. One of the problems is that we still think with a very short-term perspective. Many companies consider green technology to be expensive and cannot afford investing in long-term environmentally friendly policies. The Bulgarian government is realizing the need to develop an friendlier legal and business environment, but it’s still not a priority. The government also makes great efforts to popularize CSR activities, and is creating a strategy for CSR for the next few years. Unfortunately, there aren’t many CSR specialists who can turn the strategy into practice. However, there is a great success concerning green energy. Land in Bulgaria is still cheap and also we have to follow European Union directives, which require 16% of the produced energy to be green. Thus in the last few years there have been many proposals for huge green projects for renewable energy from big companies including Toshiba and Sharp. It’s up to the Government to decide whether they will be profitable or not.
3p: How do locals react when you tell them about your work in CSR? What kind of questions or comments do they have?
DT: Some of them are skeptical and tell us that it’s something very difficult and unknown, so we have to do a lot of work to popularize the CSR concept. But many others, which are already familiar with it, support us, saying “That’s exactly what Bulgaria needs! It has a great future, we want to join!” or “How can I help?”
Of course, sometimes it’s difficult to explain what we are doing and that our work is not about rapidly increasing their revenues, but about long-term efficiency. Also we are facing a lot of obstacles concerning transparency and the need of guarantee for a well done job. People prefer safety, especially after this current economic crisis.
Fortunately there are many people who consider the situation to be a great opportunity to make the change they need in their business model. And they choose sustainability.
3p: How do Bulgarian companies respond to the idea of CSR awareness and reporting?
DT: Some of the companies are familiar with the concept, especially the global companies. They even have specialists for their CSR strategy. They still do not realize the need of popularizing their CSR activity and very few of them are publishing CSR reports. They publish CSR news only on their websites and what we can offer them is exactly promotion, because we all need of much more good news.
Other companies, especially the smaller and the Bulgarian firms, are not so familiar with CSR. However, some do community activities, they are trying to be environmentally friendly, but they still do not call it CSR – they don’t have a CSR strategy or CSR specialists.
3p: What can the international community or standards organizations like GRI do to help raise awareness of CSR/ESG in Bulgaria?
DT: Maybe the best way for raising awareness of CSR and ESG is to make the consumers familiar with the concept. This could be done by popularizing it through media. If GRI is closely working with media and show the good practices to the consumers, soon society will realize the benefits of these activities and will start to require more and more information about CSR and sustainability. We could do more to create “green” and “responsible” consumers. Thus the companies will be forced to prepare reports and if they do not have enough CSR activities, they will try to generate some more in order to make a good and attractive CSR report.
If there were such thing as as Balkanphile, it would be 3p correspondent Leon Kaye. He recently spent several weeks in SE Europe, and is exploring social entrepreneurship and import-export opportunities in the region. He writes extensively about the Balkans and CSR on GreenGoPost.com.