How UPS, Starbucks, Disney Do Good
While any list of America's most socially responsible companies is, inevitably, subjective, here are firms that are admired by their peers for social responsibility -- and why.
Marc Gunther, FORTUNE senior writer

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - What's a socially responsible company? It is a company that serves. It serves its customers by selling something of value, its workers by providing good jobs, its owners by generating profits and all of us by making the world a better place.

Any list of America's most socially responsible companies is, inevitably, subjective. Even if we could agree on how business can best repair the world -- by curing disease, alleviating poverty or curbing global warming -- there's no way to quantify goodness or compare companies in industries that have little in common.

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FORTUNE's America's Most Admired list identifies big U.S. companies that are admired by their peers for social responsibility. Here's a look at some of them, and the practices that have earned them acclaim:

UPS. Tops on our Most Admired list of top ten socially responsible firms for the third consecutive year, Big Brown does good for its workers, the environment and, not least, the global economy -- by delivering 14.8 million packages a day to more than 200 countries. It's no exaggeration to say that if UPS (Research) were to shut down, much of global commerce would grind to a halt.

The $42.6-billion-a-year Atlanta-based company is a leader in sustainability and philanthropy. It strives to increase the fuel efficiency and decrease the emissions of its massive fleet, in part by deploying about 1,500 alternative fuel vehicles that are powered by electricity, natural gas, propane and hydrogen. Meanwhile, UPS's corporate foundation gave away about $43 million last year, focusing on hunger, literacy and voluntarism.

What's most impressive about UPS, though, is its commitment to its people. It hires lots of immigrants and poor people and offers them a chance to pursue the American dream. Many UPSers, as they are known, join the company after high school or college, drive a package car or work in an office and stick around for 30 or 40 years, until they retire. They do so because the company provides good pay, health-care benefits, tuition assistance, a stock purchase plan, a chance to advance and a shared sense of purpose. Moving all those packages around is no easy task. Words like teamwork and loyalty and community still mean a lot at UPS.

Publix Super Markets. The values of this supermarket chain, which operates more than 800 stories in five southeastern states, were shaped by its founder, George W. Jenkins, who began with a single store in Winter Haven, Fla., in 1930. Jenkins, known as "Mr. George" until his death in 1996, believed in customer service, charitable giving and sharing the wealth of his business with his workers, known as associates.

With more than $19 billion in revenues last year, Publix is one of the largest and fastest-growing employee-owned businesses in the nation. "This is a company where cashiers can retire as millionaires," says spokeswoman Maria Brous. The company gives generously to local nonprofits, and organizes its associates and customers to donate to national charities such as the Special Olympics.

Starbucks. A pioneer in the area of corporate responsibility, Starbucks (Research) broke the mold in the fast-food industry by offering health-care benefits and stock (called "bean stock") even to part-time workers. It is now forging partnerships with coffee growers around the world that are designed to give growers a fair price for their beans -- often higher than the so-called Fair Trade price -- and to promote sound environmental practices. Starbucks also seeks to become more "green" at the retail level by, for instance, offering a 10-cent discount to customers who bring their own cups.

"They are innovative, distinctive, commendable and unfortunately not copied by many other companies," says David Vogel, who teaches at Berkeley's Haas School of Business and is the author of The Market for Virtue: The Potential and Limits of Corporate Social Responsibility. Seattle-based Starbucks generated $6.4 billion in revenues last year.

Walt Disney. The $32-billion-a-year entertainment giant has long promoted charitable giving and voluntarism, and it monitors factories in the global south to try to make sure that workers who produce Disney-branded goods get decent treatment.

But Disney's most important social contribution may be its commitment to quality entertainment. Particularly when deploying the Disney (Research) brand, but also on its ABC-TV network, its owned TV stations and its cable networks like ESPN, Disney has almost always resisted the temptation to lure audiences with sleazy, trashy or overtly sexist programming (setting aside Wife Swap, which isn't as tasteless as it sounds).

Herman Miller. Based in Zeeland, a small town in conservative western Michigan, this manufacturer of stylish furniture -- most famously, the Aeron chair -- has a tradition of social and environmental responsibility that dates back to the 1920s.

Legend has it that founder D.J. DePree was staring out a window when he spotted his future wife; he subsequently decided that everyone who works at Herman Miller (Research) should be able to see a window. To this day, the company wins prizes for its environmental design of buildings and products. (Its newest chairs can be disassembled and recycled.) Herman Miller has also shared power and profits with its workers for more than 50 years. It generated $1.5 billion in sales in its last fiscal year.

Many more big companies that didn't make the cut among survey respondents deserve recognition for socially responsible practices: Nike (Research) and Gap for their efforts to improve working conditions at factories in poor countries; Dell (Research) and Hewlett-Packard (Research) for their environmentally sensitive design of computers and printers, and for their recycling initiatives; and Intel, for being a thought leader in sustainability issues and its openness to stakeholders. Other companies cited by academics and consultants in the field include GE, IBM, 3M, Nokia, Swiss Reinsurance, STMicroelectronics, Colgate-Palmolive and Nokia.

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