Like most investors, you probably aim for the best possible return when picking potential investments. But as consumers increasingly clamor for companies to embrace social responsibility, good corporate citizenship is fast becoming a vital part of any business or stock's success.

Corporate Responsibility magazine recently released its "100 Best Corporate Citizens" list, in which it rated members of the Russell 1000 large-cap index on more than 300 different elements related to responsible behavior. In this series, I'm delving into each of the seven categories that contribute to a company's overall score.

Today, we'll look at the environment, which gets a 19.5% weighting. Here are the top-rated companies in this category:

  1. IBM
  2. Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI)
  3. Baxter International (NYSE: BAX)
  4. Intel (Nasdaq: INTC)
  5. Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ)
  6. Lexmark International (NYSE: LXK)
  7. Johnson & Johnson

To earn their high scores, the companies above engaged in a variety of good deeds, including disclosing their total electrical power usage and the percentage of it derived from renewable and non-renewable sources; implementing a water recycling program; disclosing their total hazardous waste generation; and operating from LEED certified buildings.

Johnson Controls was rated No. 1 overall, and second in environmental factos. On its website, it publishes its environmental scorecard, with goals including cutting its ratio of energy use to revenue by 30%, its waste by 20%, and its water use by 10% by 2018.

Intel, impressively, is the largest purchaser of green power in the U.S. The chipmaker has also won awards for its water efficiency.

Among other things, Hewlett-Packard's website offers a carbon-footprint calculator, letting you pit its various printers and computers against competitors' offerings to compare emissions and costs. Clearly, if the company weren't committed to doing right by the environment, it wouldn't offer such a feature, nor would its products fare well in that comparison. Fellow printer maker Lexmark recovers millions of ink cartridges annually and keeps millions of pounds of solid waste out of landfills.

Health-care concern Baxter International has made its Zurich headquarters so green that it uses 80% less energy than a conventional building of its size. It has incorporated 20 green criteria into its purchasing procedures as well.

Companies that take honest and benevolent action can not only lift your spirits, but also boost your portfolio.  In its first nine years, companies on the "100 Best Corporate Citizens" list outperformed the Russell 1000 over the ensuing three-year period by more than 25%. That's a great motivation for even the most coolly rational investors to take social responsibility to heart.

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