ReTuna, more than waste

by Davide Perillo
8 min read
by Davide Perillo
8 min read

In ReTuna Återbruksgalleria everything you can buy has been recycled. Take for example this lamp, shaped a bit like a pine cone – round at the bottom and elongated at the top – with brown fronds that give it a look halfway between ethnic and Seventies kitsch that came from old leather jackets, cleaned and cut into pieces. The bottle being used as the base of the lamp is recycled too, and so is the vase sitting next to it on the shelves. And the other things nearby: the skates in the sports shop, the bedside tables in the furniture store, the toys in the window over there, behind the entrance with a big tree surrounded by a bench made from reclaimed materials. And the clothes in an area that leaves you in no doubt as to their origin: second hand. The mall’s name also describes its manifesto. The “Tuna” in it comes from Eskilstuna, the town of 65 thousand people where it is located, about an hour’s train ride west of Stockholm, Sweden, while the “Re” part needs no explanation: it’s the maker’s mark here for absolutely everything.

Perched between the lakes of the county of Södermanland and dating back to Viking times, Eskilstuna was until now only “famous” for two things: being the birthplace of a slightly obscure centre-forward, Kennet Anderson, who played for Bari and Bologna in the Nineties; and for being the childhood home of Anni-Frid Lyngstad, the brunette from Abba, who was not even born here but lived in Eskilstuna with her grandmother until she was 13. But now Eskilstuna is attracting attention from newspapers all round the world, thanks to this mall with the red and green façade, which until four years ago was the depot for a haulage firm.

The “Hugo Boss” of used goods

From the outside, it looks like a school, a library or a civic centre in this part of Sweden. But inside, the comparison is immediately – and inevitably – with Ikea. It is a mall for absolutely everything, from furniture to electricals, DIY equipment, and things for your pet. There are 14 shops, an all-organic bistrot, a bookshop, a small meeting room, and a vetrine where customers can view products to buy online later. There is lots of light, a Scandinavian sense of order. Nothing like a traditional flea market! In fact, ReTuna is aiming quite a bit higher, as manager Anna Bergström explains with a smile: ‘we want to be the Hugo Boss of used goods’.
Bergström has been here since the very beginning, in August 2015, when the idea of giving belongings a second life to help extend the life of the planet began to take root thanks to a happy coincidence of local environmentalists and far-sighted politicians.
The local municipal energy company, EEM (Eskilstuna Energy Miljo) stepped in to provide the funds and oversee the management, helping Eskilstuna to fulfil its desire to become ‘a cutting-edge town on the forefront of the fight against waste, to blaze a trail’, as Bergström explains.

The mall was set up 300m from the local recycling centre, so when people arrive they can just take the side road to the shop, stop and unload their stuff to a staff of six or seven people in fluorescent vests. It’s their job to select items, categorise them and put them in a series of big containers. ‘We don’t refuse anything outright,’ says Bergström. Anything that cannot be resold is piled up and subjected to a second inspection because they could be useful to someone: a school, for example, or the local authority. If there’s really no use for it, it ends up in a junkyard.
Shopholders spend a portion of their mornings choosing what to put on sale. Their lease agreements stipulate that there should be zero waste; they don’t always succeed, but they certainly try their best.

Trash, with style

‘I have my own list of things I need for my stores, like pottery, so when a box of pottery comes into this mall it’s placed in my little area’, Maria Larsson, who runs the homeware and plant shops, told The Huffington Post. She takes a look, chooses what she wants and thinks about how to reuse that handle-less teacup that could become a pen holder or a chipped vase, which won’t go on sale but could hold flowers to dress up her window display.
Syrian-born Amjad Al Chamaa does the same thing with electronic goods, like the transistor radio or the vintage projector displayed proudly on the shelves in his store, “ReCompute”. All very low tech, but if you press the button, it still works. ‘Why throw it away? Well, it’s a good question. Better to try and have it repaired by the engineer, who is trying to sort out an old PC and a slightly outdated printer. Even better still: train people to do the repairs. Eskilstuna has a dedicated room for workshops ranging from carpentry to clothing repairs, which are particularly popular because second-hand clothes account for a significant slice of the mall’s sales.
‘It’s high-fashion trash,’ jokes Bergström, whose own background helps explain where she has ended up. As she told the BBC – just one of the broadcasters that have come to look at the ReTuna model – she was born in a kind of comune, though her family, when she was three years old, moved out to the countryside to “pursue a simple life” which basically translated into an anti-consumerist lifestyle. She never had a Barbie dolls or any toys at all at Christmas, she recalls. But then she rebelled, with a career right in enemy territory: shopping centres. Eventually she ran two commercial malls in the Stockholm area. It was only when she had her fourth daughter that she began to have doubts about their lives “being ‘shaped by major brands”, by whatever the Kardashians were doing on reality TV or Instagram’. So she turns back to green and quit the city when she finds ReTuna’s advert looking for its first manager.

More than waste

So far everything has gone well. The mall’s sales are more than respectable: 28 million Swedish krona (2.65 million euros) since opening, 10.2 million krona (970 thousand euros) in 2017 alone. And the 2018 accounts are expected to show further growth. That is enough to keep the shops running, provide work for about 50 employees (many of whom are immigrants, because ReTuna is part of a public programme for the integration of foreign workers) and attract an average of around 600-700 customers per day, including Sundays.
‘We take a business-minded approach,’ says Bergström. ‘We manage stock like anyone else, we do the things that everyone does. But it’s our products to make the difference.
And the objectives, which are not just limited to sales figures. ReTuna is not just a shopping centre; is meant to be a model for others, a stimulus capable of bringing the very idea of “second-hand” into the mainstream and of changing people’s attitude to consumption. In a word, ReTuna also wants to educate. That’s why along with repair workshops it also runs conventions, exhibitions, lessons and even competitions for students (“Recycling Design” lessons are mandatory at the local Folkhogskola or folk high school).
Of course, it helps to be in a country where the circular economy is already being legislated for. VAT is cut by half for companies that reuse instead of throwing away (12% instead of 25%), the cost of repairs can be set against your tax return, an incredible 99% of domestic waste is recycled (even 40 years ago it was a third…) and the Swedish parliament has set a target for “zero emissions” by 2045. But that will not happen by itself.

Only one planet

The other side of such green awareness is, paradoxically, the knowledge that we could do so much better. As Rosanna Endre from the local Greenpeace section says: ‘We’re still consuming way too much. In fact, if all countries consumed the same as Sweden, the WWF has calculated, we would need ‘at least 4.2 planets the size of Earth’. Instead we only have one, so anything we can do to break the cycle of “make, take and trash” and replace it with another more virtuous triplet – “reuse, reduce, recycle” – is incredibly important.
That, essentially, is the motivation for customers like Cato, coming from Stoccolma with his family: he is leaving ReTuna with a faux-leather money-box, two baby toys and a Chinese artefact, all neatly tucked into a paper bag. Total cost: 66 krona, or 6.50 euros. “Where we live – says the man – with that money you get a coffee and a cinnamon bun”. But for him the point is not to save money: “It’s about saving resources. Reuse can only be a good thing”.