Eco-mall where shoppers can splurge without it costing the Earth may soon be coming to UK

Colin Drury

We’re halfway through enjoying fika on a roof terrace in the sleepy Swedish town of Eskilstuna when Anna Bergström receives a message from the International Council of Shopping Centers. They want her to speak at their annual forum in London.

“Wow,” she enthuses. “The world is really starting to take us seriously.”

It is good news for Anna – and, perhaps, for the entire planet.

The 45-year-old is the manager of the entirely unique building we are currently taking coffee on.

ReTuna, below us, is a 3,000m-square mall where pretty much everything sold in every single shop is recycled, reused, repurposed or just plain second-hand.

It is thought to be the world’s first shopping centre where each store – including a sports emporium, electronics outlet, clothes boutique, garden centre and toy shop – deals exclusively in pre-loved goods. Even this roof terrace, attached to a sweeping upper-floor café, is fitted only with upcycled tables and chairs.

The whole place has been set up by the local council as part of an ambitious initiative to reduce the town’s waste and create a cleaner, greener, circular commercial economy here. The region’s 100,000 residents are incentivised to drop off unwanted items which they would otherwise throw out (or sell online), and then stop to browse their neighbours' equivalent contributions.

“You see people bringing in a dining room table or old computer, then walking out an hour later with a good-as-new bike or a camcorder from the Eighties,” says Anna. “Which is just what we want.

"The aim is to make this a unique shopping experience so people don’t just come here because, ethically, it’s the right thing to do, but because they want to; because they know they’ll find wonderful things in a beautiful building; so, what we do here, is show that a town can reduce its waste without sacrificing its love of retail therapy. These two things can co-exist.”

Now, as ReTuna approaches its fifth year, it seems the world is paying attention.

A centre modelled on it is to open in Hamar in Norway early next year while local authorities from Germany, Japan and Switzerland have all sent representatives here over the last 18 months to consider the viability of doing something similar.

Significantly, what Anna calls “a handful” of businesses, entrepreneurs and charity officials, though no councils, have also been in touch from the UK, apparently with a view to opening such a centre here.

“I cannot say more, because these things are confidential,” she says. “But I am sure this will happen in Britain within two or three years. I think people are beginning to understand it is important: if you are not sustainable in the future – I mean either as a community or business – you will not survive.”

ReTuna, it is worth making clear, remains a relatively small-scale experiment.

There are just 12 shops, here while visitor numbers have stayed stubbornly plateaued at about 255,000 a year since it first opened in August 2015. Total sales are good – some £2.8m worth of goods have been bought since day one – but still fall slightly short of what was hoped for. A plan to expand the centre to more than 5,000 square metres remains on hold until those figures pick up.

“It’s a difficult retail environment competing against the convenience of online, and we feel that as much as any other mall,” says Anna.

All the same, visiting ReTuna is undoubtedly an experience.

Anna Bergström, manager of ReTuna

Set opposite a nature reserve in a repurposed DHL building 10 minutes from Eskilstuna’s town centre, its high sliding doors reveal an inside that is all glass, polished concrete and exposed industrial piping. An art installations and communal seating (all made of repurposed materials, of course) welcome visitors, while a glass roof and mezzanine upper floor means natural light floods through the mall. Perfume fills the air. The café does a mean baked potato with salad.

“People in Sweden love the idea of sustainability, but they sometimes associate second-hand shopping with flea markets,” says Anna, who has more than 15 years' experience managing shopping centres. “We wanted to get as far from that image as possible. This is about making pre-loved high-end and desirable.”

She mentions the Mall of Scandinavia, a 171-store, 42-restaurant megaplex, which opened an hour away in Stockholm just three months after ReTuna.

“But I think we’re the real Mall of Scandinavia,” the mother-of-four says. “That’s just a big version of any other shopping centre in the world. This is an attempt to show the world a new way.”

Spenders here today, it seems, agree.

One I speak to, Drew Nissen, is an American tourist who has popped in while visiting family in the area.

“It’s an incredible place,” the 33-year-old photographer from Atlanta says. “It’s all so visually enticing. It makes you want to spend money. I’d love to see something like it in the States. Second-hand shops there are so depressing. Change that image, emphasise the green credentials, and I think you have a success story waiting to happen.”

Inside ReTuna (ReTuna)

Logistically, ReTuna – named because the town’s nickname is Tuna – is an ode to Swedish efficiency.

Based next door to one of two municipal recycling centres, townsfolk are encouraged to sort and dispose of their rubbish at that facility before bringing items which might be resold or reused to a drop off point at the back of the mall.

There, in a vast warehouse space, a specialist team sorts these donated goods so that the centre’s shop owners – who all run their stores as independent businesses – can come along and choose what they can fix, convert, refine and, ultimately, put up for sale.

“So, all these items are given a new lease of life,” explains Anna, as we walk through this backstage storage space, a veritable Santa’s grotto of indoor and outdoor furniture, electronics, clothes, games, pictures, plant pots, lamps, lights, books, bags, crockery and pottery.

Some items here are all but antiques – there’s a stunning Seventies record player nestled next to a Nineties Sega Mega Drive – but others are, quite literally, brand new. I see a mirror still in original packaging and point it out. “I’m afraid some Swedes do have a habit of throwing out very quickly,” winces Anna. “We'll get TVs from the last year. Laptops also. Or settees that just need a reupholster. But this is good for our shops because it means they get a reputation for stocking high-quality goods.”

Why don’t people sell such stuff online instead of donating it here, I ask? “Some will, of course," says Anna. "But giving it to the centre like this is good for the community. It keeps money here, helps local people and businesses, boosts our economy. And what is good for a community is, in the end, good for the individual too. This is what we say."

Perhaps the best items received so far has been a brooch dating back to 1848. “This we have not put on sale yet,” says Anna. “We think we will get it valued first.”

The whole idea was the brainchild of a local Green Party councillor back in the early Noughties. “Perhaps he was what you call a hippy,” says Anna. “But he was a hippy who was very good at lobbying, and he made the municipality see the value of this, both as a waste management strategy and a commercial enterprise.”

ReTuna cafe (ReTuna)

Plans for the mall and next door's recycling centre became a flagship strand in a raft of environmentally friendly proposals – including running local buses on biogas and giving residents seven different bins – designed to make the former steel town’s economy one of the greenest in Sweden.

The idea was then rubber-stamped in 2012 and the building converted with a £1.6m subsidy from the council, which is led by the country's Social Democrats. Three aims were identified and remain key today: increasing local sustainability, job creation (a dozen people work here, along with roughly 30 shop owners and staff), and offering environmental education.

That latter one is fulfilled by an onsite classroom and conference facilities. An oil company was one recent organisation to hire both out for a senior staff away day. “Kind of ironic,” nods Anna.

She, herself, came on board as manager just before opening.

To take what she says is her dream job, she rented a flat in the town, while her family continue to live 50 miles away in Nyköping. “Almost my whole apartment is furnished with things I bought from the mall,” she says. “I love it. My only problem is making sure I don’t spend all my wages here.”

Shop owners are just as enthusiastic about the project – although keen to emphasise it has not been easy to establish their stores.

Eva Meden quit a high-flying job as a prison boss to set up ReModa, a chic homeware store, with sister Anita Patterssun.

“Which was harder work?” the 55-year-old ponders, stood among candles, cake-stands and teacups. “I think dealing with prisoners is easy compared to running your own business. But this is so rewarding. You take things, you are creative, fix them up, try and improve them, then sell them on. This is a lovely way to make a living.”

Their sales curve, the pair say, is on the “right trajectory”: they moved into a bigger unit in April after more than two years here. “I think some people in Sweden still need persuading that second-hand can be beautiful, but we say 'Come to our shop and see',” says 51-year-old Anita.

A little way along the mezzanine floor is Amjad Al Chamaa, manager of Re:Compute:IT.

Amjad Al Chamaa (Independent)

Here, in a Steptoe’s Yard of electronics, he stocks everything from battered guitar amps and VHS video recorders (popular with people wanting to watch mum and dad’s old wedding footage, apparently) to state-of-the-art laptops and smart TVs. One, currently on sale at £1,200, is a 2018 Philips model.

“Nice TV,” nods the 35-year-old. “Although the funny things is people come here looking for something as new as possible but they see the older stuff, see how great it looks and that it still works – things was built to last back then – and end up buying that instead.”

He shrugs. “A Seventies TV - you don’t find this in a regular mall.”

His shop, he adds, is especially popular with Eskilstuna’s 5,000-strong immigrant population. “I’m from Syria myself so I know this,” he says. “When you’re new to a place, you need bargains.”

Bargains, indeed, are something ReTuna, as a whole, is hoping will keep attracting shoppers.

Events such as a semi-regular Crazy Monday, when all prices are reduced, opening hours increased and entertainment put on, have attracted thousands through the doors.

Yet more perhaps does still need to be done to prove this concept can become a long-term success.

Back on the roof terrace with Anna, she reveals she is looking to have a supermarket onsite as an anchor tenant.

“Obviously you can’t sell pre-loved food,” she smiles. “But there’s no reason you couldn’t strike a deal with Aldi, for instance, to have a supermarket here specialising in sustainable goods. For them, it is an experiment of something they might do more widely in the future. For us, it brings people onto site.”

A salon and an ethical shoe shop are also tenants she is specifically aiming for next. “The key is to keep being imaginative and thinking big,” she says.

Talking of which, I ask her about that possible speaking engagement for the International Council of Shopping Centers. Will she do it, I wonder?

“Well, of course, it would mean speaking in English, which is not always easy,” she says in near-perfect English. “But I think it would be worthwhile. This is not just about ReTuna. It is about spreading this idea and this concept everywhere.”