Swedish textile city Borås fashions itself and Viskan River anew

The Swedish city of Borås that almost lost all its primary trade— textile production— to lower-cost markets in the mid-20th century, has now become a global example of cleaner textile production and water stewardship.

Recently, Borås hosted a high-level delegation from the People’s Republic of China, which was looking for ways to make textile production in China more sustainable as part of the country’s push to prioritize environmental health.

The visit was organised by EU-funded SWITCH-Asia Programme, to which UN Environment is a partner, as part of larger efforts to promote the shift towards more sustainable consumption and production patterns and resource efficiency in China and around the world.

Borås was the Swedish centre for textile production until the late 1960s, when a fateful combination of technological changes, the evolution of production costs and the rise of powerful international competitors served up a textile crisis that disrupted European primary textile production.

Throughout the next 30 years, primary textile production would progressively move to Asia and lower-cost Mediterranean countries, resulting in a dramatic decrease of textile industry jobs in Borås.

However, there was a hidden blessing in the shift.

“In the 1950s and 1960s, citizens of Borås could tell which colour was being used daily for textile dyeing by looking at the colour coughed up by workers of the industries or by looking at the colour of the Viskan River, which crosses the city centre,” said Mr. Ulf Olsson, Mayor of the City of Borås.

With companies concentrating instead on producing a wider variety of products with higher value added, there came the opportunity and space to rethink and act on improving the city’s environmental health.

To encourage the transition, the city invested in moving to the higher-value parts of the supply-chain investing in design, education, quality, innovation, marketing and logistics, including through fashion e-commerce, which now represents an important source of revenue for the city.

At the same time, Borås’ citizens decided to take action to restore the Viskan, but the ailing river, the result of a long legacy of primary textile production, remained highly polluted until 1994, when the death of hundreds of fish in the river made headline news and prompted accelerated action from both government and civil society organisations.

In 2007, the citizen-driven association became the Viskan Water Council, uniting municipal government, landowners, industries and nature, fishing and agricultural organisations on its board, and sought public consultation from citizens. This structure allowed the Council to continuously measure and report on water conditions, account for pollutant discharges, propose new conservation measures and establish an action plan for the river.

The city managed this by combining strong legislation, education, cooperation with and incentives for stakeholders, political will and open and transparent communication. This included inculcating environmental stewardship values in children from a young age through the education system, providing strong city government support to SMEs to transition to green business models, instituting green procurement, transparency and strict penalties for violating environmental laws. The national government also worked with city government, passing legislation that supported the city’s water treatment goals.

All the work put in over the years by citizens, city and national governments, the private sector and other relevant stakeholders transformed the city, so much so that it is now a model for the rest of the world— a feat just recognised by the European Textile Collectives Association (ACTE), which elected Borås its leader for the next three years.

"As Borås' liveability as a vibrant city has grown in Sweden, the Viskan River Cleanup and our advancements in waste management, clean technology, textile clusters and more have defined us as a city committed to sustainability and growth - making Borås more attractive to companies and skilled labor in the high-value textiles and fashion sector that has become the Borås trademark," said Mayor Olsson.

Borås is now a rapidly growing, 108,000-strong city, home to nearly 12,000 companies, including major Swedish fashion brands and 8,800 thriving small and medium sized enterprises. Over 50 per cent of Swedish textile trade goes through the city.

The city’s producers are world leaders in markets for high technology textiles and high-quality garments. The city acts as an incubator for the textile industry, and has grown into a recognised textile hub across Europe.

“Borås is now globally recognized as a top city for environmental sustainability in areas of waste management, as are its efforts to implement cleaner production for textiles and in water stewardship in the clean up of the Viskan River. It is now one of Sweden’s most vibrant cities, recognised as a beacon of sustainability and innovation, especially in the textiles sector," said Sara Castro, Programme Officer, Sustainable Consumption and Production, UN Environment.

Borås’ success story is part of a paper by SWITCH-Asia that identifies key hotspots in the textile supply chain and should fuel policy recommendations to address them. These are bound for submission to the central government of China in November.

The number and proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas is growing fast, making learning across cities essential to finding, growing and implementing solutions quickly. This “urban October”, HABITAT III and World Cities Day bring to the fore city issues and challenges including environmental degradation and job creation. Borås’ story of clean up and economic rebound shows that cities can lead the way towards sustainable development for all.