In its second annual survey of 6,000 consumers in 10 nations, the Edelman PR company's "goodpurpose" arm found solid support for corporations' efforts to do good:

  • 68% of consumers would remain loyal to a brand during a recession if it supports a good cause.
  • 55% are prepared to pay more for a brand in a recession that supports a good cause they believe in.
  • 87% feel duty-bound to contribute to a better society and the environment.
  • 83% are willing to change their habits to do so.
  • 82% believe they can make a difference by supporting good causes.

According to the survey, consumers care most about the environment, health and health care, poverty, and education. That's good news for the following socially conscious companies:

  • Dell (NASDAQ:DELL), Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ), and Staples (NASDAQ:SPLS) recycle computers, printers, and/or accessories such as inkjet cartridges.
  • American Express (NYSE:AXP) and Gap (NYSE:GPS) are just two of the companies involved in the (RED) campaign, raising awareness and money to fight AIDS in Africa.
  • General Mills (NYSE:GIS) is one of many food companies offering healthier fare these days. (Between 2005 and 2007, sales rose by 12% for its reduced-fat products, by 8% for its reduced-sodium products, by 10% for its reduced-sugar products, and by 12% for its reduced-trans-fat products.)

What's the whole story?
Still, after reading the survey, I had a few unanswered questions. Had consumers' opinions changed compared to the previous year's survey results? After a little online sleuthing, I found the original survey's results: "70% of consumers say they would be prepared to pay more for a brand that supports a good cause they believe in." The wording doesn't include the recession factor, but it sure seems like considerably fewer consumers are interested in paying up for good causes.

That wasn't the survey's only change since 2007. Last year, 56% of consumers were "more likely to recommend a brand that supports a good cause than one that does not." This year, that figure is 52%.

I don't think these numbers necessarily mean that support for social causes is doomed -- just that recessionary pressures are temporarily pushing good intentions farther down consumers' lists of priorities. And while people say they're willing to spend more and support various causes, bear in mind that they don't always put those sentiments into action.

Fools, don't take surveys like this one at face value. Study them to see what isn't being said, and wherever possible, look for changes in the data from year to year. Spotting trends can help you profit from companies best positioned to make the most of them. If Nike (NYSE:NKE), builds a reputation as an admired sneaker-recycler, higher sales from impressed consumers may follow. Whether in an independent survey or a corporate financial report, Fools should never take numbers for granted. Truly enlightened investors will always dig deeper, to unearth the truth beneath the statistics.

And if you'd like to join the Fool in supporting positive social change, take part in our annual Foolanthropy drive to promote financial literacy. We've joined forces with this year's partner, DonorsChoose.org, to support financial and economic education for tomorrow's investors. To help us fund important projects in classrooms around the country, consider making a tax-deductible donation today.

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Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article. Gap, Dell, and American Express are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Staples and Gap are Motley Fool Stock Advisor picks. The Fool owns shares of American Express. Try our investing newsletters free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.