Why West Sweden Will Be Your Next Sustainable Fashion Trip

West Sweden's Gothenburg is a hub of ethical living, sustainable fashion brands and good ol' innovation. Fashion journalist, Sophie Benson, heads there for fika and finds the future of textile innovation.

Sustainability and Scandinavia seem to go hand in hand. The area ranked highest in the 2017 Global Sustainable Competitiveness Index, its culture is centred upon slow living (we have Sweden to thank for ‘Lagom’) and it’s the home of ‘plogging’ (picking up litter as you jog), the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and, of course, Greta Thunberg. 

Shall I go on? OK. Norway has the most electric cars per capita of anywhere in the world and 98% of its electricity comes from renewable sources, Sweden has its very own second-hand shopping mall and Denmark has a robust climate policy.

We tend to think of the major capitals like Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen as the stand-out pioneers in Scandinavian sustainability but if you’re willing to look beyond the obvious spots, there are some gems to be found. Gems like West Sweden.

The area is known for its stunning landscapes and seafood but beneath that lies an innovative spirit and an exciting sustainable fashion scene, so I packed a case full of warm clothes (second hand, of course) and headed off to Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg.

Image Sweden’s second city Gothenburg is a hub of ethical business and green redevelopment

Before I even delved into the fashion side of things, Gothenburg was scoring eco points left, right and centre. The city was the winner of the Global Destination Sustainability Index Leadership Award in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 and in 2016, was awarded the UNFCC’s Momentum of Change climate change award. The local airport has held the highest level of environmental accreditation since 2011 (but it’s still an airport so take that with a pinch of salt…) and around 65% of Gothenburg’s public transport runs on renewable energy. 

That said, let’s dive into the fashion, seeing as that’s why you’re here.

Shopping in Haga and beyond

A stroll into Haga, one of the oldest districts in Gothenburg, unveils a whole host of sustainable shops to visit. 

Thrive sits on a corner just off the main shopping street and although tiny, stocks a multitude of sustainable, vegan and eco-friendly brands from Armed Angels, People Tree and Komodo to Veja and Organic Basics. Dresses, knits, boots, underwear, jewellery and books, they pack a lot into a little space. 

Just up the road from Thrive you’ll find Houdini’s Gothenburg branch which is, they claim, ‘probably the most sustainable store in the world’. It’s a bold, Carlsberg-esque statement and I’m not even going to pretend I can verify the claim but in building the store, the sportswear brand did push numerous sustainable goals. They chose a green rental contract which meant they had to optimise their energy usage within the space; they sorted all waste for recycling while renovating; chose fittings that are toxin-free and included facilities and services such as a bike fixing station to encourage customers to cycle, clothing repairs and a rental option.

Image Head down Haga’s cobbled streets and find vibrant vintage and independent shops

While I could have spent all day wondering Haga’s cobbled streets, dipping into cosy cafes for Fika along the way, it’s worth venturing out into the rest of the city too. 

Dotted across the centre, you’ll find a multitude of second-hand and vintage shops, from the cavernous charity shop Myrorna to UK faves Pop Boutique and Retro Rehab. And don’t forget to stop by Nudie Jeans. Not only do the denim brand have a store in Gothenburg but they actually launched there in 2001 and the city is still home to their HQ. 

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Since 2012, all Nudie Jeans denim has been made with 100% organic cotton, but the brand goes even further than that. Under their repair scheme, they’ve repaired 55,000 pairs of jeans so far, with 5,000 of them being repaired in the Gothenburg store. 

Jeans that can’t be repaired are cut down and used as repair parts and the store also stocks second-hand Nudie products for lower prices. Their Rebirth collection was their first made from post-consumer waste (each product is about 70% recycled) and the brand also made the bold decision to go vegan in 2018. They’re certainly not playing it safe when it comes to sustainability. 

Why Borås is the Textile Centre of Sweden

Gothenburg isn’t the only place to see in West Sweden. 

About an hour’s train journey east lies Borås, a city I’d never heard of but one that any sustainable fashion enthusiast should take the time to learn about. Historically an industrial town, it doesn’t have quite the same charm as Gothenburg but its ambition and ingenuity more than make up for that. 

On the banks of the Viskan in the old industrial area is the Fashion Textile Centre. The sprawling space is a renovated 100-year-old factory that once employed 900 people to manufacture stockings and artificial silk. It’s one of many factories that were once the soul of Borås, known for its rich textile history, but by 1985 all had closed, taking 30,000 jobs with them. The city simply couldn’t compete with the rock bottom prices producers in Asia could promise retailers. The rivers were polluted and a huge number of the city’s population lost their jobs.

Fast forward a few decades, however, and Borås decided to take back its crown as a world leader in textiles, but this time with an emphasis on sustainability. 

The Textile Fashion Centre is the epitome of the city’s dedication to rethinking its place within fashion. While the bones of the old factory are very much still there, its contemporary renovation and fittingly Scandinavian design details underscore the future-facing narrative of the centre’s initiative. All under one roof are the Swedish School of Textiles, the Fashion Gallery, Smart Textiles, the Textile Museum of Sweden and the Fashion Incubator, ‘Do Tank’.

The textile school made me want to tear up my fashion degree and go and do it all again in that building. 

The facilities are incredible; there’s a separated, dedicated lab each for weaving, printing, sewing, knitwear and finishing. Huge traditional looms sit next to digital jacquard looms, there are enormous 3D knitting machines, a climate-smart printer, and shelves upon shelves of fibres and threads waiting to be spun and woven. And to underpin all of the kit is a dedication to sustainability. The university is moving away from cotton towards hemp and other less resource-intensive fibres and builds sustainability into every course, not just as an outcome but as a foundation. 

The teaching team is led by industry-experienced professionals and there’s even consideration given to the number of students they take on. Just 15 design students are enrolled each year so as not to flood the market. 

They’ve got a difficult task ahead if they’re to transform the industry but as one of the lecturers at the school noted, “You shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the problems. Every change you make is positive, a step in the right direction.”

Image Borås has re-emerged as a forward thinking centre of industrial innovation and ethical fashion

Yet more innovation happens over at Smart Textiles. Focusing on three areas – sustainable textiles, health and medicine, and architecture and interiors, Smart Textiles, which was founded in 2006, exists to develop, make and put into practice innovative textiles that will benefit society, the future and the planet. 

Bringing together research, industry and academic insight, they’ve been responsible for creating diagnostic garments, artificial muscles, musical fabrics, washable paper yarn and non-toxic water repellent, functional garments, to name just a few. Their sample wall was a peek into the future, a taste of what we can achieve if we’re willing to dedicate the time and resources.  

And the innovation doesn’t end there. I headed down to the Do Tank (a twist on ‘think tank’, but they ‘do’ rather than ‘think’) where they were creating a fabric that can dissolve in the rain (made from top secret materials for a top secret client). 

While this was being shown off, whizzing away in the background was an embroidery machine which, rather than having to utilise many different coloured threads, simply printed the colour directly onto the thread as it was sewn, speeding up production by 300% and cutting down on waste.

Students also get to make use of the facilities. Anna Lidström, a PhD student, uses the space to explore sustainable solutions to the fashion industry’s problems. 

Solutions such as using monofibres rather than blends, which can be broken back down and regenerated, making ‘modular’ garments which can be repaired and reworked, and working with new textiles such as ‘Twood’ (textile wood). Lidström also works closely with the local community with her research, working alongside the aforementioned charity shop Myrorna for a fashion campaign and collaborating with XV Production, a local micro-factory run by four women who focus on longevity, reducing environmental impact, circular textiles and utilising what already exists. 

The sustainable fashion scene in Borås feels like a community effort from a city that could have crumbled as its industry moved overseas but decided to come back with a purpose and a vision for the future. 

In Gothenburg, too, it doesn’t feel incidental, it’s simply an extension of the city’s already existing ethos. When change, research, innovation and sustainability are built into a region, as they are in West Sweden, they permeate every facet, from transport and tourism to culture and fashion. Sure, the fashion capitals have a lot to offer but West Sweden feels like a sustainable fashion hub waiting to be discovered.

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