Anna Bergstrom had a dilemma. She loved the glitzy world of high fashion, but had also come to feel that it was unsustainable and bad for the planet. She’s now found peace of mind by running a stylish shopping mall in Sweden, where everything is second-hand.
“Do you notice the smell?” Anna Bergstrom says, as she surveys her mall from the mezzanine level. “It smells nice here, doesn’t it?”
It’s very important to Anna that this place is enticing, because she feels it is making a statement. Everything for sale here, in 14 specialist shops covering everything from clothes to DIY tools, is recycled.
She is usually turned off by the smell of second-hand stores, she explains, even though she adores vintage fashion.
For most people flea-markets and charity shops carry a stigma, she thinks – a mark left by countless bad experiences. Too often they are worthy but depressing, Anna says. Her mission is to bring second-hand shopping into the mainstream.
The mall itself is spacious and appealing, almost Ikea-like. An art installation – a tree and circular bench all fashioned from recycled materials – greets customers at the entrance.
There is even a coffee shop and gift-wrapping service.
The mall is called ReTuna. “Tuna” because that’s the nickname for the city where it is based – Eskilstuna, an hour’s train journey west of Stockholm – and “Re” because the goods on sale have been recycled or repurposed.
It was set up by Eskilstuna’s local government in 2015, in a warehouse which used to house trucks for a logistics company.
The shops inside it are run as businesses rather than charities, and each pays a combined charge of rent and business rates.
Anna Bergstrom’s business mantra which she repeats to each shopkeeper is, “Do it like Hugo Boss.” She wants the mall to stand toe-to-toe with a regular, commercial, glitzy mall.
There is a sports shop stuffed with skis and (slightly scuffed) sledges, a kids’ shop bursting with toys (a little faded), a bookshop, a DIY store, a homeware specialist, even a pet accessory shop.
As well as “pre-loved” items for sale, there are also many that have been upcycled. These are unwanted items that have been taken apart and turned into new objects.
In a store that specialises in handmade household ornaments, Bergstrom is keen to show off a nice example of this, from one of her star tenants.
Shopkeeper Maria Larsson proudly shows off her best-selling product – a container that resembles the body of a pine cone. Each segment of its skin has been cut from leather jackets – upcycling in action.
However, Maria confesses to being a little worried. She is struggling to keep up with customer demand for this design because she can’t get enough jackets.
This makes more sense once you understand ReTuna’s location.
It’s right next to Eskilstuna’s recycling centre, which is also run by the municipality.
A steady stream of cars passes through it, bringing cardboard, mattresses and other typical unwanted household items.
But many of these cars go past the metal skips and then head down a ramp to a road that runs right next to the mall.
Here locals drop off their unwanted household things if there is a possibility they can be resold or upcycled.
In a vast area beneath the mall, a small army of workers in fluorescent jackets sifts through the donations, carrying them to designated zones.
Every day the shopkeepers can come down and inspect what has arrived: kids’ toys, household appliances, gardening equipment… perhaps even a leather jacket. This is what they call their “treasure”, says Anna. Their business rent gives them privileged access to it.
Shopkeepers sometimes hang around the basement to look at what is coming in to their zones. Anna calls these people “peekers” and gives them a telling-off, because they are meant to wait for set times to inspect their assigned stock.
Many of the shopkeepers will come to informal arrangements with one another. So if the clothes shop knows that Larsson wants leather jackets for upcycling, they will pass on any that are too damaged to be re-sold.
Any items that are unwanted by all the shopkeepers go to the recycling centre next door.
“You see,” says Anna, “this is why I sometimes joke that this is the ‘high fashion trash shopping mall’.”
She thinks her passion for ethical, sustainable shopping goes back to her upbringing with her hippie parents.
She was born in a commune, though her family moved out to the countryside to pursue a simple life when she was three years old.
Her parents rejected consumerism in all its forms and tried to protect her from it.
She wasn’t allowed Barbie dolls or any toys at all at Christmas, she recalls.
But as she grew up she reacted against this.
“Everyone has to be their own punk revolution,” she says cryptically.
In fact she ended up forging a career in the temples of modern consumerism: shopping centres. She began by setting up retail shops, then ran two commercial malls in the Stockholm area.
It was only when she had children – four daughters – that she began to have doubts. She took about a year’s maternity leave for each child, which gave her time to reflect. Perhaps maternal instinct revived in her some of the values instilled by her parents, she thinks.
As her daughters grew, so too did her doubts about the world she’d brought them into, and its throwaway culture.
She watched them become seduced, as teenagers, by a modern kind of consumerism – their lives became shaped by big brands, promoted by influencers on social media, says Anna. They became governed by whatever the Kardashians were doing on reality TV or Instagram, she says in a tone of dismay – before breaking into a smile.
In desperation she tried cutting her daughters’ pocket money so they couldn’t buy the latest clothes, but offered to pay for second-hand ones instead – with limited success.
She realised she had to do something more, so the opportunity for a job at the ReTuna mall three years ago, as its first manager, came at the perfect time for her.
Find out more
- Learn more about the ReTuna mall in the latest People Fixing the World podcast from the BBC World Service
“I realised that I needed to become a role model for my children, doing something good for the planet,” says Anna.
She calls the mall “my baby”, and wants it to be a place her teenage children are proud to visit.
And they do visit. Though she hasn’t persuaded them to tag it as a location on an Instagram post yet – she’s working on that.
Anna’s bigger hope is that what works for her family can work for Swedish society as a whole.
Swedes love the concept of living sustainably and doing things for the planet, but there is a “gap” when it comes to action, she says.
Anna thinks her mall can bridge this gap.
And there is evidence this may be happening. Sales are slowly rising year-on-year. Since opening, the mall has sold £2.8m worth of products and last year it attracted 700 visitors per day.
“If you can have a trendy, fashionable way to do sustainable living,” says Anna, “I think mainstream customers can follow that – in high heels.”
You can follow writer Dougal Shaw on Twitter: @dougalshawbbc