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updated 12/2/2006 3:25:21 PM ET 2006-12-02T20:25:21

Wal-Mart's low prices haven't helped it gain a high perch in the public's esteem. At least, that's the conventional wisdom. Critics accuse the retail giant of destroying neighborhoods, exploiting its workers and discriminating against female employees. But when American consumers were asked to name a U.S. company that was socially responsible, they named Wal-Mart above all others.

The retail giant trounced second-place McDonald's (yes, McDonald's). In fact, 28 percent of consumers picked Wal-Mart Stores as the most responsible company, compared with 17 percent for McDonald's and 16 percent for third-place Microsoft.

(MSNBC.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal News.)

“I was surprised by Wal-Mart given all the bad press,” says Charles Fombrun, Executive Director of the Reputation Institute, which surveyed 30,000 consumers worldwide about their perceptions of social responsibility. “But low prices are an element of social responsibility. Consumers think, ‘They’re doing right by me.’ ”

Many Americans associate corporate citizenship with tiny firms like ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's or the Body Shop, which sells makeup and skincare products. But social responsibility is now going mainstream. Organic products are hot, global warming is not and most consumers say they prefer to buy socially responsible goods. As a result, even Wal-Mart is following the corporate social responsibility bandwagon. And the company has successfully improved its image, if not its operations; Fortune magazine recently ran a story on the Bentonville, Ark., behemoth titled "The Green Machine."

The bottom line is no longer the bottom line. Even shareholders have started pushing companies to be more socially responsible. Investors at Exxon Mobil, for example, have been pushing the firm to produce reports about its environmental impact. "A couple of years ago, financial performance was everything. Today it's part of everything," says Leslie Gaines-Ross, a reputation expert for public relations firm Weber Shandwick.

The Reputation Institute asked more than 30,000 consumers from 25 countries to “name a company in your country that you believe to be very socially responsible.” Consumer companies have an advantage in surveys like this, because people know their names. Around the world, respondents named companies whose products they consume every day. South Africans named Coca Cola, followed by the retailer Pick 'n Pay. The Swiss chose Migros, another low-cost retailer. In Japan, auto firm Toyota topped the charts, with a nomination rate of 59 percent.

Nationalism also played a role in the rankings, Fombrun says. A company that improves its nation's image overseas will boost its reputation at home. India's Tata Group, for example, which is well known all over the world, is also well regarded in India. Nokia, Finland's largest company and a popular consumer brand all over the world, was the most frequently nominated corporation in its home country.

But manufacturing a sugary drink or building a country's self esteem aren't the only way to capture consumers' hearts. Australia'a Bendigo Bank, for example, helps rural communities own their own banks, by offering franchises to towns that have suffered from bank closures. Because social responsibility is built into their brand name and business model, they avoided the common negative perception of financial institutions, Fombrun says. Oil firm Brazilan Petrobras also bucked the anti-oil trend, partly because of its efforts to wean the country off foreign sources of energy.

In the U.S., Target has earned points for giving 5 percent of its federally taxable income to support community issues. "Most of these companies have strong philanthropy and are good at communicating what they do for the community,” Fombrun says

© 2012 Forbes.com

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