Consumers are becoming more and more socially conscious, and want the goods and services they use to measure up. In truth, it doesn't take much. A simple action that costs a company very little or even nothing at all can make a real difference in the mind of the consumer.

Often, the added expenses a company incurs from paying workers a little more, monitoring resource sourcing, or going the extra ethical mile are small downsides when compared to the huge potential upside. And where there's company upside, there's investor upside.

In recent years, General Electric (NYSE: GE) has made significant strides in this area. Let's dive deep into this classic titan of American industry, evaluate its socially conscious policies and practices, and take a hard look at the numbers. We'll analyze GE in terms of its performance as a business, as an investment, and as a socially conscious enterprise.

Refreshingly blunt and brave
GE as a socially responsible enterprise popped onto my radar just recently. The company was in the news for remarks made by Mark Vachon, who runs "ecomagination," the company's sustainable business portfolio.

Referring to the current field of Republican presidential candidates, a reporter asked Vachon how GE -- which officially considers itself an environmentally friendly and progressive organization -- feels about American voters potentially voting into office a president who rejects the idea of man-made climate change. Vachon replied, without hesitation: "We found enough data there to have a company like GE respond, and we have responded.”

The data Vachon is referring to is an internal investigation the company made into the science behind climate change in 2005. The response was the creation of the ecomagination unit, which has so far generated $100 billion in revenues. The ecomagination portfolio of businesses pulls from every part of the company, including appliances, aviation, capital, healthcare, oil and gas, power and water, and transportation.

In an era when even businesses have to consider the political implications of everything they say, Vachon's comments are refreshingly blunt and brave. GE is taking a real stand here, and is to be applauded for it. More importantly, the company is also plainly putting its money where its mouth is by investing so much time and effort into its ecomagination portfolio. Now, let's have a look at the company's overall numbers and see how GE measures up as a business.

A tidy operation makes for tidy profits
The company just reported its fourth-quarter results and full 2011 results. Here are the highlights:

  • Revenue was down 1.5%, from $149.6 billion in 2010 to $147.3 billion in 2011. Peer Koninklijke Philips Electronics (NYSE: PHG) showed revenue growth of just 1.3% for the same period. Overall, both of these diversified conglomerates showed very little movement on the top line over the most recent year.
  • Despite the flat revenue, GE grew its income from $11.6 billion to $14.1 billion from 2010 to 2011, for a jump of 21.5%. GE accomplished this by reducing its cost of goods sold. Philips income went from plus $1.9 billion in 2010 to minus $1.7 billion, this change due to an increase in the cost of goods sold.
  • Margins tell you something about how leanly and efficiently a company operates, something which directly affects profit. GE's gross margin, a measure of manufacturing efficiency, was a healthy 41.77% for 2011. Operating margin was an also-healthy 13.64%, and net-profit margin for the year was a very nice 9.75%. Compare this with peer Siemens (NYSE: SI), whose numbers came in at a significantly lower 29.21%, 11.5%, and 8.83%, respectively.

GE's stock is trading right now around $19 per share, and a P/E of 15 stands lower than its average over the past decade. In addition, the company even pays a dividend of 3.6%.

Making money and a difference
Companies that understand the connection between profit and social responsibility are companies that are in touch with the times, making them some of this planet's most successful. Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) has famously "gotten" the connection of late, joining the Fair Labor Association in January and giving shareholders majority vote for directors. And social responsibility has long been a core asset of Starbucks, a company that -- after 40 years in business -- seems to just be hitting its prime.

Are any companies perfect in this regard? No, but, to paraphrase Voltaire, it's important to never let the quest for the perfect drive out the good. If you're looking for similarly forward-thinking, profitable investments like GE, read about the stock we're calling "The Motley Fool's Top Stock for 2012." Get it while the stock is still hot by clicking here now – it's free.