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Dell pushes a greener image

As founder and CEO Michael Dell seeks to reinvent the company’s public face, he’s shaking more hands and hugging more trees.

Dell CEO Michael Dell and Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz. Image: Sun Microsystems

It was a speech at a big-business technology conference, but you could have mistaken it for an Arbor Day rally.

On stage earlier this week was Dell (DELL) founder and CEO Michael Dell, giving a speech packed with talk of saving trees and preserving the planet. Sure, there were plenty of references to virtualization, a new partnership with Sun Microsystems (JAVA), and a new all-in-one desktop PC to rival Apple’s (AAPL) iMac – but the biggest applause lines were eco-friendly.

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And there were a lot of eco-friendly lines. Besides a restatement of the company’s pledge to go carbon-neutral next year mostly through buying offsets, Dell also showed a touchy-feely video about how the “Me Generation” is turning into the “Re-Generation.” He even mentioned that its servers come in fewer cardboard boxes than Hewlett-Packard’s.

Chart: Jon Fortt

This wasn’t about Dell going soft; instead, the tech baron’s new green streak is part of the company’s new image. No longer content to be known simply as a low cost leader – bargain-basement technology is out of vogue these days – he is instead positioning the company as an inspirational technology maker that’s conscious of the environment while it’s building cutting-edge gear.

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The growing global Internet economy is putting “an infinite demand on servers,” Dell said. And that is leading to “an infinite demand on energy – and that means we have to be smarter about power consumption.”

Dell isn’t alone; the inconvenient truth of global warming has yielded some convenient technology marketing angles. When Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) last month touted the benefits of its new cooling system for data centers, the company was sure to emphasize the green angle: less heat at a data center in India that used its system meant less time running the diesel-powered air conditioning. Sustainability is big, too. When Apple unveiled its new iMac this summer, CEO Steve Jobs hailed it as the most ecologically responsible Mac yet, made of high-grade glass and aluminum that recyclers covet.

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Thankfully there’s more to the industry’s moves than empty rhetoric. HP’s Dynamic Smart Cooling technology really does cut power use in data centers, and the new recycling-friendly iMac’s design clearly required forethought. Dell’s computers are among the most environmentally friendly in the industry according to the Green Electronics Council, which has developed a federally-backed tool that ranks computer equipment based on its environmental impact.