Consumers are becoming more and more socially conscious, and they 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 with the huge potential upside.
Today we'll dive deep into Microsoft (NAS: MSFT) -- evaluating the software giant's socially conscious policies and practices while taking 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.
Microsoft has just announced an eco-friendly initiative that, for a company of its size, will be a truly challenging undertaking: Beginning this July 1, the start of the company's next fiscal year, Microsoft will begin the process of going completely carbon-neutral across all of its operations. It will accomplish this through a carbon-offset plan that, per the project's press release, uses an "internal carbon fee within Microsoft, which will place a price on carbon."
Carbon offsetting is nothing new; it simply means that a decrease in carbon emissions in one area can be "offset" by an increase in carbon emissions in another area, or vice versa. Carbon offsetting can give a company flexibility to be "carbon heavy" where it needs to be by being "carbon light" somewhere else -- so long as the net effect is zero, or neutral, carbon emissions.
Each business unit within Microsoft, by assigning a carbon cost to everything it does, will be responsible, again according to the release, "for the cost of offsetting [its] own carbon emissions." For emissions that can't be internally offset, the company will purchase carbon offsets on the open market. The price of the carbon used in the plan will be based on "market pricing for renewable energy and carbon offsets."
Microsoft is a big company, with operations in more than 100 countries, and this carbon-offset scheme will be applied to all of them. Microsoft isn't the first company to go carbon-neutral, but it's one of the biggest, which makes this project all the more daring. Large organizations are unwieldy, and if Microsoft doesn't do this right, and has to go too often to the open market, it will cost the company real money.
Now, let's have a look at the numbers and see how the company is performing as a for-profit enterprise.
Holding its own
March-quarter earnings for Microsoft are in. Here's a look at how things stand right now for the company on a few key metrics up against a few of its peers:
Year-over-year quarterly revenue growth for Microsoft was 6% -- nothing to write home about, but healthy for a company that's been around for more than 30 years. Software-making rival Oracle (NAS: ORCL) managed only 3.1%. Apple (NAS: AAPL) , of course, blew the doors off this metric, coming in at 58.9%. At 24.1%, Google (NAS: GOOG) also had phenomenal quarterly revenue growth. Intel (NAS: INTC) , another of the old-line tech companies, managed only 0.5%.
Year-over-year quarterly earnings for Microsoft were anemic, with the company actually down 2.4%. Apple, again, murdered this metric, with growth of 94.1%. Google killed, too, with 60.7% growth. Even Oracle grew its earnings a big 18.1%. Only Intel saves the day for Microsoft by coming in at -13.4% growth.
Gross margin is always good to look at; by encompassing such core corporate characteristics as brand strength, manufacturing efficiencies, and pricing power, it gives you some idea of how strong the company is in its sector. Microsoft is very strong on this metric, with a trailing-12-month gross margin of 76.62%. At 43.95% TTM, Apple's margins aren't as strong. Google does better, at 64.88% TTM. Intel makes a good showing, with a 63.15% TTM gross margin, while Oracle tops them all, at 78.31% TTM.
Microsoft doesn't dominate every metric, but it doesn't need to. It doesn't need to be Apple or Google; it needs to keep plowing ahead, year after year, generating solid -- if not explosive -- growth in revenue and profit in the way of a Coca-Cola or a Procter & Gamble. The numbers we just looked at, except the disappointing earnings growth, demonstrate that nicely.
Making money and a difference
Companies that understand the connection between profit and social responsibility are companies that are in touch with the times and include some of this planet's most successful. 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. If you're looking for similarly forward-thinking, profitable investments like Microsoft, read about the stock The Motley Fool is calling its top stock pick for 2012 in our special free report, aptly titled "The Motley Fool's Top Stock for 2012." Get it while the stock is still hot.
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 Oracle, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Apple, Intel, and Google.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Intel, and Apple and creating bull call spread positions in Microsoft and Apple. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days.