We hear a lot of talk about the circular economy, about changing industrial processes and restructuring of large companies, but this is something that can operate on a far simpler, more local, and greener way
Back in 2006, which feels like a political aeon ago, I wrote a blog for the Guardian suggesting that the car parks of supermarkets might be turned into market gardens.
That encountered a certain amount of scoffing back then, when it was widely believed that Gordon Brown had “abolished boom and bust” and even those who acknowledged climate change as an issue saw it as something to deal with “some time in the future”.
And before internet retailing cut a swathe through the apparently endless expansion of out-of-town bricks and mortar retailing.
Yet I was reminded of it when I visited a from the outside standard-looking retail centre in a regional city an hour out of Stockholm. I’d travelled to Eskiltuna because I’d heard there was something new and different being done with an otherwise redundant out-of-town retail space, in a typical kind of nondescript space between a DHL freight depot and a range of light manufacturing, with support from the local municipality.
And I found it appears to be thriving, having fun, and clearly creating small business and job opportunities.
We hear a lot of talk about the circular economy, about changing industrial processes and restructuring of large companies, but this is something that can operate on a far simpler, more local, and greener way. ReTuna is a pioneer in this.
Simply locals can bring whatever you might usually take to a charity shop here – the products of that big spring clean, the result of a decluttering resolution, entire house contents after a bereavement. Here it will be picked over the operators of 14 shops, and students being trained in recycling, to be repaired, upcycled, reused or simply resold.
There’s a lot of specialisation – a cycle shop on the ground floor and a reshaped metalwork décor place beside it (and yes I did come away with a simply but elegantly designed circular candleholder). There’s furniture and cutlery upstairs, a computer and technology shop, and a couple of clothes shops with a mixture of secondhand and upcycled fashion.
Some is definitely on the avant-garde but seriously stylish side – some adventurous but curiously effective things had been done with skis made into bookshelves, seating and cupboards. Others were more simple art – plain white plates decorated with quirky slogans. And of course upcycled fashion, from the adventurously quirky to the modestly crafty.
There’s a stylish café, of course, with the tables made from stacked used tyres (never seen that before, but makes perfect sense).
Of course, what’s happening here in some ways only reflects what charity shops have always done. And the makers movement up and done Britain and across Europe has very much focused on upcycling and trying to turn the products of a carelessly wasteful economy into new but environmentally sound products.
But there are obvious advantages to doing this all in one place, for many different kinds of goods, with acres of space to display goods, have workshops, do training, and host lots of visits, the kind of space that individual shops or old workshops seldom provide.
Having opportunities for small independent business to set up and operate within this supportive environment that’s a destination in its own right, with chance to learn from each other, is an economic boost.
Reuse and upcycling
This model will also help mix different groups in society – some shoppers will be looking for cheap secondhand clothing, others might be after a fancy avant-garde Christmas tree with price not really a concern. That’s got to be a bonus.
And of course there’s the environmental benefits of items not going to landfill, and existing goods being reused rather than new ones made.
Redundant out-of-town retail spaces are clearly perfect for this – and there’s plenty of carparking for those dropping off items (although some of that might also be turned into allotments and market gardens, along my ideas from 2006).
But I was left thinking about areas where this would work best, and places where it perhaps wouldn’t. for such upcycling and recycling does rely on goods having a basic value, a quality of materials and manufacture that make them suitable for upcycling. A lot of what’s on offer at Retuna is solid wood, or decent porcelain, or sturdy wool cloth.
A trawl of the aisles of your average “everything a pound” store wouldn’t uncover too many items suitable for reuse or upcycling. One more reason to question why the quality of what so much is sold in Britain today is allowed to be so poor.
Natalie Bennett is the former co-leader of the Green party. She tweets at @natalieben.