The recession has affected not only consumer wallets, but also brand perception. According to a new survey by firms Landor Associates, Penn Schoen Berland and Burson-Marsteller, transparency and corporate responsibility have become far more important to consumers in a tough economy.

The survey measured consumer perceptions of corporate social responsibility practices and ranked companies that are the most responsible. It found that despite the recession, 75% of consumers believe social responsibility is important, and 55% of consumers said they would choose a product that supports a particular cause against similar products that don't.

"[Corporate social responsibility] can be the olive branch between struggling industries and consumers in cases where consumers are experiencing the highest expectations and the biggest let downs," said Scott Osman, global director of Landor's citizenship branding practice, adding that the industries with brands that have performed poorly, are the ones in which responsibility is valued most.

One industry where perceptions have dropped significantly is healthcare. The survey attributes this decline to the congressional debate on the issue. "Apparel, an industry that a decade ago was viewed as one of the most irresponsible, is now perceived as better performing than other industries with regard to CSR practices. [Meanwhile] financial services and automotive are presently at the complete opposite end of the spectrum," Osman said.

While 38% of respondents plan to spend the same or more on products or services from socially responsible companies, more than half of consumers are unsure about the meaning of CSR. And those who do know what the term means, define it as "giving back to the local community" (20%), and as "self-regulation and accountability" (19%).

Additionally, the survey found that 70% of consumers are willing to pay a premium for products from socially responsible companies. In fact, 28% are willing to pay at least $10 more. That means companies have an opportunity to differentiate themselves if they can communicate clearly how they give back to their employees, communities, and the environment, per the survey.

When asked to name the most surprising findings, Osman pointed to the fact that nearly 50% of 18-24 and 25-34 year olds are more likely to take a pay cut to work for a socially responsible company—a much higher percentage than any other age group. However, Osman added, "a year where there seems have been so much responsibility expressed, especially in light of the earthquake in Haiti, only 11% of Americans say they’ve heard corporate CSR communications."