Sometimes it's tough to be a capitalist with a conscience. That's been the case for me and my opinion of YUM! Brands' (NYSE:YUM). I've long admired the company's financial successes, but I wasn't such a fan of the tangle between Taco Bell and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). The CIW, a grassroots organization of immigrant laborers who pick a large portion of the fresh tomatoes that end up on your late-night tacos, had been fighting for years to push Taco Bell to back a penny-per-pound increase in the price it paid for tomatoes from its Florida packers. But the Bell wouldn't budge.

It was hard not to sympathize with the plight of these workers, who endure harsh living conditions and work 16-hour days at low wages, often to feed families left behind in Mexico, Guatemala, or Haiti. Re-read your Steinbeck and you'll know how these folks have lived.

I learned about this mess firsthand when I joined the CIW for one of its first "Truth Tours." I followed the CIW buses across the country, sleeping in church basements and union-hall floors, documenting the scene as the workers protested at Taco Bell locations in major cities before arriving at the big show, Taco Bell HQ in Irvine, Calif.

It was a bit like a David Lynch flick: Lots of road interrupted by strange characters dressed up like tomatoes, jigging to a cacophonous protest chant. Nearby, spooky, shifty-eyed men in ill-fitting suits (Taco Bell's men in black) passed out counterintelligence, warning of dire consequences for the American consumer should it cave to the penny-per-pound request.

At Taco Central in Irvine, the papier-mache-wielding protestors were greeted with police helicopters, scores of hired guards, and law enforcement personnel who deployed weapons and long telephoto lenses from rooftops, or wandered the crowd -- ineptly camouflaged in Nike (NYSE:NKE) hats -- snapping head shots of the protestors and bystanders.

It struck me as an amazing tragedy. What we had there, to borrow a phrase, was a failure to communicate. It was pretty clear that the jumpy, proud corporate types weren't even speaking the same language as the dreadlocked, dancing tomatoes.

By now you might be thinking, "Hey, hippie! What does this have to do with investors?" Let's get to that.

Because of this issue, I haven't eaten at a Taco Bell for four years. Before then, I'm quite sure I spent $200 annually on my late-night cravings. Do the math. Losing just 5,000 uppity sods like me would cost the Bell $1 million a year in revenue.

Balance that with Taco Bell's actual cost to make peace with the boycott a couple months back: a measly $100,000 per year, plus a promise from YUM! to implement a code of conduct promoting fairer treatment of farm workers. The firm has also agreed to work with the CIW to secure similar pledges from competitors such as McDonald's (NYSE:MCD), Wendy's (NYSE:WEN), and Burger King (some of which already have supplier codes of conduct).

Obviously, this was never just about money. It was about getting a giant company to realize that it does bear some responsibility for what happens down its supply chain. It's a tricky line for companies to walk, but bruisers like Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) and others ought to take heed. There are consumers who vote their conscience with their dollars. In an increasingly connected world, the price of too much hardball might be higher than anyone thinks, and tough to measure.

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Seth Jayson can't wait to load up from the value menu. At the time of publication, he had uppity positions on many issues, but no positions in company mentioned. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Fool rules are here.