I haven't the foggiest what took me so long, but I finally just bought my first shares in Whole Foods Market (NASDAQ:WFM), one of my favorite companies when it comes to two critical investing filters: long-term performance and corporate social responsibility.

Responsible to the core
Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, comes in two basic varieties. Some companies go the CSR route by grafting a skin of social responsibility onto their existing corporate bodies. This can be purely for PR purposes or for more genuine purposes. Either way, for me it doesn't matter: As long as CSR is on a company's radar and the company is taking real action as a result, count me in.

But for some companies CSR goes much deeper, to the very core of the enterprise. Whole Foods is just such an enterprise. Since the first Whole Foods opened in Austin, Texas, in 1978, the company has sought a genuine balance between profit and social responsibility.

One of the first things you see when you visit the Company Info page of Whole Foods' website is the description of the company as "mission-driven." That mission is to "seek out the finest natural and organic foods available, maintain the strictest quality standards in the industry, and have an unshakeable commitment to sustainable agriculture."  Above and beyond that, you'll also find some very specific socially responsible missions Whole Foods has chosen to undertake:

  • Through the Whole Planet Foundation, the company tries to alleviate poverty in the developing-world economies from which Whole Foods sources so many of its products. It does this primarily through the facilitation and extension of microcredit. As of August 2012, the foundation has more than 225,000 clients with more than $432 million in funds committed.
  • The Whole Kids Foundation "support[s] schools and inspire[s] families to improve children's nutrition and wellness." The foundation's ultimate mission is to end the childhood obesity epidemic. Partnerships with innovative organizations and schools give children access to fresh, nutritious meals.
  • Through Community Giving, Whole Foods reaches out to local communities through its store employees, who are naturally passionate about supporting the causes that are important to their own neighborhoods. Several times a year, Whole Foods stores hold community giving days where 5% of that day's net sales are donated to a local nonprofit or educational organization.

Also a great business
Of course, if a company isn't performing up to snuff as a business, it doesn't matter what it's doing when it comes to CSR, because it will likely be insolvent soon anyway. Fortunately for investors, like myself now, that's far from the case. Here's a look at how the company measures up on some important metrics against some of its peers.

  • Revenue growth: In its most recent quarter, Whole Foods grew its revenue by a whopping 23.6% year over year, while Safeway's (NYSE: SWY) contracted by 0.2% and Kroger's (NYSE:KR) grew by a middling 3.9%.
  • Earnings growth: Whole Foods grew its YOY earnings by a staggering 49.4%. Safeway, to its credit, had phenomenal earnings growth, too: 20.6%. Kroger's earnings actually contracted by 0.7%.
  • Cash-to-debt ratio: It's always good to see more cash than debt on the balance sheet, ideally at least 1.5 times more. With $1.2 billion in cash and $24 million in debt, Whole Foods' C/D is a brilliant 50. $267 million in cash and $6.4 billion in debt give Safeway the not-so-brilliant C/D of 0.04. And $238 million in cash and $8.2 billion in debt give Kroger possibly the worst C/D I've ever seen: 0.03.

A perfect marriage for the new economy
Making money and making a difference don't have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, the new economy not only rewards it, but practically demands it. 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 nothing at all can make a real difference in the mind of the consumer and in the company's bottom line.

Whole Foods goes well above and beyond this minimum standard, however, and backs up its integrated focus on good deeds with plenty of profits. For me, five shares of Whole Foods isn't much, but it's a start, one I intend to build on.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.