Consumers are becoming ever more socially conscious, and they want the goods and services they use to measure up. In truth, it doesn't take much; a small change that costs a company little or nothing can make a big difference in the mind of the consumer.

Oftentimes the costs 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 -- for the company and the investor.

Today we'll dive deep into Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX), evaluating the latte-slinger's socially conscious policies and practices while taking a look at the hard numbers.

Living together and giving together
Right on the front page of the company's website, there's a link that reads, "We Live Together, Let's Give Together." Clicking on it takes you to a page offering you a chance to vote on where $4 million from the "Starbucks Foundation" should go. You can choose from 124 nonprofit organizations Starbucks has identified that address "holistic needs in their communities like education, employment, and housing."

The Starbucks Foundation itself goes back as far as 1997, when the company began funding literacy programs in the U.S. and Canada. Greatly expanded, today the foundation supports a range of causes and programs, including:

  • "Starbucks Youth Action Grants" that nurture young leaders by giving kids the opportunity to take action and make a difference in their communities.
  • Social development projects that support the countries and communities where Starbucks sources its coffee, tea, and cocoa.
  • Clean water access programs that help finance sustainable water programs around the world.
  • The "Starbucks China Education Project," a $5 million commitment to support educational programs in China.
  • "Partner Match and Community Service Grants" that, per the company's website, "provide matching grants to nonprofits where our partners' made personal monetary and time contributions."

Starbucks is also a leader in the ethical sourcing of its products, following strict standards and guidelines for everything from essential raw materials like coffee and tea to the companies that supply products for its stores. In concert with Conservation International, Starbucks developed something called "Coffee and Farmer Equity practices," a 19-page set of specific guidelines that help "farmers grow coffee in a way that's better for both people and the planet."

There's quite a bit more to the socially responsible policies and programs the company undertakes, all of which can be found and explored in far greater detail on the Starbucks website. It's not an exaggeration to say that the company is a role model for corporate social responsibility. It's something that's really at the heart of the company, handed down by its founder and CEO, Howard Schultz. Now let's have a look at some numbers and see how Starbucks measures up as a business.

Where the rubber meets the road
Second-quarter earnings are due out soon, but here's a look at how things stand right now for Starbucks compared to a few of its traditional rivals:

  • Year over year, Starbucks grew its quarterly revenue by a robust 16.4%. Dunkin' Brands (Nasdaq: DNKN) grew its revenue by a healthy 12.5%. The mighty McDonald's (NYSE: MCD) only managed 7.1% YOY revenue growth. To be fair, 7.1% is pretty good, especially for a company as old and established as McDonald's, but Starbucks' 16.4% is tough to argue with.
  • Starbucks grew its net income year over year at a nice 10.2%, compared to a healthy YOY increase of 4.8% at McDonald's.
  • Profit margin is always good to look at, and Starbucks, at 10.51%, is keeping a lot of each dollar it brings in. Dunkin' falters a bit here, keeping only 5.48% per dollar of revenue. McDonald's keeps a whopping 20.38% of each dollar of its revenue. Well done, McDonald's. An operation the size of McDonald's -- and the economies of scale it commands -- can have profit margins of that magnitude.

Starbucks doesn't dominate every metric, but it doesn't have to; for our purposes, it's enough that Starbucks, with social responsibility at its core, is right up there with the big boys. The company's stock is trading right now for $59 per share. The P/E of 35 is on the high side, but with the worldwide growth trajectory the company is on -- including expansion in China and India -- there's a reasonable case to be made for it. The company even pays a small dividend of 1.1%.

Making money and a difference
Companies that understand the connection between profit and social responsibility are companies that are in touch with the times and are some of this planet's most successful. Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) has famously gotten the connection of late, joining the Fair Labor Association in January, giving shareholders majority vote for directors, and finally looking into the environmental impact of its supply chain.

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