A Bold Green Idea from Best Buy

Imagine that, instead of buying a TV, laptop or mobile phone, and worrying that it will become outmoded, you could lease it, knowing that you could easily upgrade to the next new thing.

We're not there yet, but Best Buy, the nation's largest electronics retailer, with nearly $50 billion in annual revenues, today took a step closer to a subscription model for electronics by offering a Buy Back plan, which invites shoppers to "future-proof" their new gear -- for a price, of course.

They'd pay an upfront fee -- say $69.99, for a laptop or tablet -- and then get 10 to 50 percent of the value of the product back if it's returned within two years, assuming normal wear and tear.

This is smart business for Best Buy, which has struggled lately, and it's good for the planet.

"What we are really after here is stickiness," said Brian Dunn, the CEO of Best Buy, when we spoke by phone this morning.

The Buy Back program encourages repeat business because consumers who bring back gear they no longer want are paid with a Best Buy gift card.

I met Brian Dunn in 2009 when I wrote about sustainability at Best Buy for FORTUNE. (See Best Buy Wants Your Electronic Junk.) The topic then was Best Buy's rollout of free or low-cost recycling, not just for its own products, but for most electronics.

Today's announcement moves closer to closing the loop in the electronics industry. Instead of throwing away unwanted gear, consumers who participate will have an economic incentive to return it to Best Buy, where it can be refurbished, resold or recycled into something else. Electronic waste is, of course, a global problem.

 What's driving the Buy Back idea, though, is consumer anxiety, Brian told me. The plan grew out of lots of listening to consumers, not just in traditional focus groups but in their homes and other places where they use gadgets.

"They are very excited about what technology can do, but they are very apprehensive about the rate of change," he said.

"They want the newest thing, but they don't want to see their neighbor show up with something cooler in a few months," he explained.