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.
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.
Of late, Apple (NAS: AAPL) has made some significant moves in the area of social responsibility. Let's dive deep into the consumer-electronics giant, evaluate its socially conscious policies and practices, and take a hard look at the numbers. We'll analyze the company in terms of its performance as a business, an investment, and as a socially conscious enterprise.
Fair and comprehensively square
Apple has always had a reputation for secrecy, particularly regarding its supply chain. This was all well and good until the flood of bad press coming out of the Chinese electronics industry in general became too much for Apple to bear. In response, this past January Apple became the first technology company to join the Fair Labor Association, an independent organization that monitors working conditions in emerging markets.
Seen at the time as a purely public-relations move, Apple proved its naysayers wrong when, less then two months after joining, it invited the FLA to begin a comprehensive inspection of its overseas suppliers. Results from the first set of inspections will be posted on the FLA website as early as March of this year. In addition, a complete list of Apple's suppliers can now be found on the company's website.
Hardware to footwear
Of course, it's not only Apple in the PR crosshairs. Amazon.com (NAS: AMZN) is another high-profile tech company that needs to be very careful with its image. The online-retailing giant is currently using a Foxconn factory (one of the Apple suppliers under fire) to manufacture its latest Kindle. Amazon is betting a lot of its future on the success of its e-reader lineup, and potential slipups like this can easily be avoided with just a little forethought.
And it's not just about high-tech companies. Low-tech companies need to think about working conditions at overseas suppliers, and footwear and clothing manufacturers were in the fair labor movement's sights long before high tech ever was. In that industry, Nike (NYS: NKE) , which has been a member of the FLA for years now, is thriving, thus making the global athletic-wear giant a great example of the perfect marriage between profit and social responsibility.
Join the crowd
In another surprising move toward transparency and accountability, just this past Thursday Apple agreed to give shareholders proxy access, which will finally allow them their say as to who sits on the board.
Peer Hewlett-Packard (NYS: HPQ) will soon be facing the issue of proxy access, as will Sprint Nextel (NYS: S) . Both tech giants will be granting majority voting rights in some form or another to their shareholders at this year's annual meetings. And just like with Apple, it doesn't really matter why they stepped up and offered more transparency and accountability, just that they did. As consumers and shareholders start to become more socially aware, companies will need to as well, or else risk damage to their bottom lines.
Apple's banner fourth quarter is no secret
And now, to the numbers. One thing most definitely not kept secret is that Apple had a banner fourth quarter, and is now the world's largest company by market capitalization. But just in case you were climbing Mt. Everest the week fourth-quarter results were released, here are the highlights:
Quarterly revenue grew a staggering 73.3% year over year.
Quarterly earnings were up a mind-boggling 117.6% year over year.
The balance sheet holds $30.16 billion in cash, cash equivalents, and short-term investments, and another $67.4 billion in long-term investments. Long-term debt? Zero.
The share price recently hit a record high of $522, which means it's not for every investor. But with the P/E at a very reasonable 14, at least you can't say the stock isn't fairly priced.
Making money and a making a difference
Apple has changed the way people use computers, the way they listen to music, and the way they use their cell phones. The company's philosophy of making electronic devices ergonomically elegant and technically easy to use had made that necessary (and sometimes frustrating) tech-heavy part of our lives so much more pleasant. And as the company has thrived, so have investors.
This turn toward a greater sense of social responsibility can only reap Apple further consumer goodwill, and therefore investor profit. 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.
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At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributorJohn Grgurichquotes Voltaire whenever he gets the chance, though his German Shepherd prefers Nietzsche. Neither owns shares of any of the companies mentioned in this column. Follow John's dispatches from the front lines of capitalism onTwitter:@TMFGrgurich.The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Amazon.com. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple, Nike, and Amazon.com. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Apple and a diagonal call position in Nike. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.
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