When a big company gains enough momentum that its direction becomes self-sustaining, its influence can ripple through society -- for better or worse. Whether it's the environment being polluted with reckless abandon or CEOs lining their pockets at the expense of employees, shareholders, and consumers, recent headlines show plenty of evidence of capitalism at its worst.
But there are also companies that are doing right -- and all too often they are overshadowed by their less-conscientious peers.
Call it conscious capitalism or just good business, but the following five companies have all prospered in every measure over the last decade -- and have done so by doing good for their employees, suppliers, customers or the general public.
5 Companies Americans Can Be Proud Of
Nucor (NUE) A company in a cyclical industry like the steel-making business could certainly be excused for paring down its workforce during tough times. During the Great Recession, Nucor's revenues were cut in half -- and yet the company didn't lay off a single worker.
Following a plan instituted by his predecessor, F. Kenneth Iverson, CEO Dan DiMicco has the company carry out a "pain-sharing" program when business is slow. Executives are the first to take pay cuts -- and they can be steep. After that, hours are reduced. That can hurt, but in the end, everyone keeps their jobs.
Whole Foods (WFM) Sure, it's great that this grocer is encouraging Americans to eat smarter, but that alone isn't enough reason to celebrate it. The presence of Whole Foods has encouraged the proliferation of organic foods, which are unquestionably better for the environment. The company's color-coded seafood sustainability index encourages customers to consume responsibly, and it has taken huge steps to encourage sustainable farming in Costa Rica.
But it doesn't end there: Whole Foods also has an admirable approach to salaries. Co-CEO and founder John Mackey gets a $1 salary and took home just $78,000 in 2011 in accrued vacation time; no executive is allowed to earn more than 19 times the average worker's total pay.
Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-B) Warren Buffett's baby makes it on to the list for how it's run: with an uber-long-term horizon and the utmost respect for shareholders. Arguably the greatest investor the world has ever seen, Buffett has also set the standard for transparency when it comes to communicating with the financial community.
Case in point: the David Sokol fiasco of early 2011. Sokol, one of Buffett's top charges, convinced Berkshire that Lubrizol -- a chemicals company -- was worthy of acquisition. The problem: Sokol held a substantial amount of Lubrizol shares that stood to appreciate upon the acquisition, and he didn't disclose the holding.
Sokol left the company around the time this information became known. Buffett was quick to give a full account of the situation, baring all for outsiders to see -- including his later bewilderment with Sokol's behavior.
Starbucks (SBUX) Sure, it's easy to see this coffee king as a symbol of all that's wrong with corporate America. Satirical newspaper The Onion once joked that the stores were so ubiquitous, a new Starbucks was being opened in the restroom of an existing Starbucks.
All jokes aside, the company has been a model employer and partner with suppliers. Any employee who works just 20 hours per week is given health-care coverage. During the economic downturn, the company spent more money on this benefit annually than it did on all the coffee it bought. Starbucks has spearheaded the move for fair-trade coffee as well. It is the world's largest purchaser of fair-trade coffee, and it often pays above market value to its producers in developing countries.
And this past year, CEO Howard Schultz launched a drive to kick-start American job growth. In the program dubbed "Create Jobs for USA," the company collects donations from customers. All of the donations are poured into a fund that facilitates micro-loans to spur small-business job growth.
Costco (COST) Competitor Walmart (WMT) has been in the headlines a lot lately. Whether it's for bribing officials in Mexico or not allowing employees to form unions, there seems to be a dark cloud hanging over the company. So why doesn't Costco get any bad press when the majority of its employees don't have union representation either?
It's actually quite simple: The company believes in its employees, and it backs that up with its actions. Employees are paid an average of $17 per hour and have generous health-care and retirement benefits -- two things Walmart employees certainly can't claim.
And customers are huge beneficiaries as well. Costco has razor-thin margins -- which means nearly every penny of savings Costco can squeeze out using its size and efficiency is passed on to customers. The company's profits, in fact, are almost entirely accounted for in membership dues -- not sales. The approach has worked out well for shareholders, too; including dividends, Costco shares have returned 131% over the past decade, doubling what the larger market has offered up and quintupling Walmart returns.
Motley Fool contributor Brian Stoffel owns shares of Costco, Berkshire Hathaway, Starbucks, and Whole Foods. You can follow him on Twitter, where he goes by TMFStoffel. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walmart, Berkshire Hathaway, Starbucks, Whole Foods, and Costco. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Berkshire Hathaway, Walmart, Nucor, Costco, Starbucks, and Whole Foods, as well as writing covered calls on Starbucks and creating a diagonal call position in Walmart.