Better Returns Through Meaningful Business


This article is part of ourRising Star Portfolio series.

Some investors might start shopping elsewhere the minute they look at Whole Foods Market's (NAS: WFM) current stock price. Let's not miss an important reason why this grocer's set for long-term growth, though: Part of Whole Foods' mission is making its business really matter, in far more ways than the traditional bottom line.

That's why Whole Foods is a solid pick for the socially responsible Rising Star portfolio I've been building for

Labors (and lessons) of love
I recently participated in a trip to the humid tropical rainforest of Guacimo, Costa Rica, to check out EARTH University, which supplies bananas to Whole Foods Market. The lessons and experiences I enjoyed as an "EARTH Student for a Week" reminded me of why I've been such a long-term fan of Whole Foods as an investment: Its mission goes far beyond profits, straight into passion and purpose.

EARTH University educates its students in the art and science of sustainable, responsible agriculture. The 8,000-acre campus includes a sustainable, working banana plantation that supplies the popular yellow fruit to Whole Foods.

Many of EARTH University's students come from poor, rural communities in developing nations. These students are there for a specific reason that's full of meaning: to learn techniques for farming and other entrepreneurial endeavors, and to change their home communities (and the world) for the better.

For years, the banana industry resulted in massive, ugly, environmental, and human tolls in countries where the popular, inexpensive fruit was raised. About 20 years ago, EARTH University took up the challenge to champion better, sustainable, more people-friendly ways to raise the familiar Cavendish banana many Americans add to their cereal or bake into banana bread.

Every time a customer buys EARTH University products at Whole Foods, part of the proceeds go back to the school, helping finance scholarships and drive research into organic and sustainable farming. (Whole Foods offers not only EARTH University bananas, but also pineapples, frozen chunks of both fruits, tropical flowers, and coffee.)

Do unto others
Later this week, I'll delve into some of the fascinating ways EARTH University has been gently clearing a path to a more sustainable future. The design of my Rising Star portfolio hopes to reflect similar values and better ways of doing things. For today, though, I'm focusing on why I believe Whole Foods is one of the safest stocks in the portfolio.

Relationships like the one Whole Foods has with EARTH University make it a different kind of retailer. EARTH University products are included as part of the Whole Trade Guarantee program. Those labels assure shoppers that the people who raised, farmed, or created those items enjoy fair wages and better working conditions, and that environmentally friendly methods were employed in those products' creation.

Whole Foods isn't the only company that offers fair-trade products. For example, Starbucks (NAS: SBUX) (another stock purchased for my Rising Star portfolio) uses Coffee and Farmer Equity (or, cleverly, CAFE) practices, which are guidelines for growing coffee in ways that are better for workers and the environment. It has also been purchasing Fair Trade Certified coffee since 2000.

Contrast this to more monstrously large companies which are better known for being monstrously tough on suppliers. Wal-Mart (NYS: WMT) may provide American consumers with rock-bottom prices, but the other side of that has been its historical reputation for playing too rough with suppliers.

Wal-Mart's game of hardball with Rubbermaid forced that company to be sucked into what is today's Newell-Rubbermaid (NYS: NWL) . Furthermore, in 2003, Fast Company did a great expose on how Wal-Mart doesn't always play well with others, too, using Vlasic pickles as a classic example: "Indeed, as Vlasic discovered, the real story of Wal-Mart, the story that never gets told, is the story of the pressure the biggest retailer relentlessly applies to its suppliers in the name of bringing us 'everyday low prices.'"

Wal-Mart's influence can have devastating results:

The pickle maker had spent decades convincing customers that they should pay a premium for its brand. Now Wal-Mart was practically giving them away. And the fevered buying spree that resulted distorted every aspect of Vlasic's operations, from farm field to factory to financial statement.

Maybe Wal-Mart's history makes it easy pickings to pick on, but plenty of other companies could use a good dose of conscience when it comes to how their products come to be on their shelves.

Hershey (NYS: HSY) may sound like sweetness and light, but its supply chain has a bitter, dark side: use of child labor on cocoa farms. In January, it responded to consumer advocates' pressure by vowing to spend $10 million over the next five years to help combat such awful conditions in cocoa-producing countries in West Africa.

Value vs. values
The pursuit of good, sustainable, positive practices throughout supply chains makes better companies. When Whole Foods founder and co-CEO John Mackey came to the Fool to talk about conscious capitalism in 2009, he pointed out that business isn't a war; it's a web, connecting companies, employees, suppliers, and customers for the good of all. Mackey dubbed this sensible approach "holistic interdependence."

Some people might call Whole Foods' shares too expensive, trading near their 52-week high and at a whopping 39 times forward earnings. By comparison, Wal-Mart and Safeway both trade at 11 times forward earnings.

In my opinion, though, Whole Foods is still a value (and a solid hold) because it has better values. When one invests in businesses that really matter, making positive impacts -- to multiple stakeholders and to more than just the short-term bottom line -- I argue there's a better shot of making big money through the truly long-term view and the generation of authentic goodwill. These elements encourage healthy growth.

However, there's also the encouragement of true meaning in devising more positive approaches to the world. That sounds like one heck of a great dividend to me.

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