Many argue that profit motive is the principle concern of corporations in a capitalist society. When considering what I love this year in investing, it was this: increasing indications that "profit over all" may not be such a simple conclusion to draw in this day and age -- and perhaps shouldn't be, for corporations to remain competitive, in light of an evolving consumer mindset.
Not that I'm saying profit isn't important -- it certainly is. However, to remain profitable and competitive over the long haul, businesses need to be run with solid practices, honest leaders, and the vision to know that the best long-term businesses recognize their responsibility to building more than just the near-term bottom line. That's why I can't help but love new trends toward greater levels of corporate social responsibility.
Although this Valentine echoes the principles of socially responsible investing, or SRI, I'm not convinced I love SRI funds; I'd prefer making individual stock picks while considering SRI factors in addition to high growth expectations. After all, SRI funds charge fees and the stocks within them are often tied to specific ethical confines, and what's "responsible" practice seems to me an individual choice.
For example, was it unethical when Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX ) teamed up with Fortune Brands' (NYSE: FO ) Jim Beam to create a co-branded liqueur, or that Whole Foods Market (Nasdaq: WFMI ) doesn't embrace unions? Personally, I don't think so (although some might disagree). Many of both companies' policies strike me as very friendly toward employees and communities, and therefore, shareholders, through the goodwill such practices impart. It's part of their competitive advantage, and they've both been examples that doing good and doing well financially aren't mutually exclusive -- and often go hand in hand.
I love the fact that there seems to be increasing evidence that corporate social responsibility records really do mean something to consumers. Last fall, I wrote about a survey with fascinating results: some consumers care about much more than just price, and, for example, the Internet is an important vehicle for researching companies' employee relations or environmental policies. (It didn't take long for somebody to try to direct this idea: take dotherightthing.com, a site formed last year that uses social networking principles to track companies' impacts on such matters.)
It's not too hard to expand upon this theme. I doubt anybody is very surprised when Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) displays its socially progressive side. On the other hand, consider Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) , which has many critics. But the company recently threw into sharp relief an interesting -- and potentially massive -- good side effect it could have through something as simple as selling light bulbs. McDonald's (NYSE: MCD ) has been working hard on animal welfare standards within its supply chain. The EPA recently said Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC ) now tops its list of green power buyers, and this was the first time ever that the private sector headed the list (No. 2 was Whole Foods).
True, recent trends towards what's been dubbed "conscious capitalism" or "SRI" might end up fizzling (although I doubt it, as human population continues to swell and resources continue to dwindle), but I can't help but be excited about increasing attention to responsibility and the fact that decisions have ramifications, for good or for ill, whether they're made by governments, corporations, or individuals. So I love the new do-gooding trend and the idea that in many cases, it may add up to competitive advantage for many companies (not just in increased sales but sometimes cost savings as well). I also love change, and if such trends continue, there may be a lot of that afoot.
Whole Foods Market and Starbucks are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Wal-Mart is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection.
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Alyce Lomax owns shares of Whole Foods Market and Starbucks. The Fool has a disclosure policy.