Finland´s forests gave it its prosperity. What will the country do in a post-paper world?

In 60 years, a poor, northern backwater became an international success story. What will be the next chapter in the story of Finland’s forests?

The forest and the people toiling tirelessly to make their living from it are central to Finnish culture and history. One example is Väinö Linna’s epic trilogy, Under the Northern Star, which depicts the path of a family of poor workers eking out a livelihood in the forest and the fields in the 19th century through the tumultuous history of the young nation.

Finland of the forests is a major theme in classic Finnish literature, in the stories of our grandparents, in photographs and films, but the forest industry requires less and less raw physical labour – a general trend in our post-industrial era.

Forestry equipment does the hard work, and Metsä Group’s brand new pulp mill in Äänekoski – or, as it is called, the next generation bioproduct mill – only has 170 employees. In addition to pulp, the Äänekoski mill produces electricity, heat, tall oil, turpentine and sulphuric acid. There are also plans for starting production of textile fibres and composite materials.

The future is also coming to UPM’s industrial area in Lappeenranta in eastern Finland. The company shut down one of its paper mills, but new hope arrived in the form of a new biorefinery which started production in the beginning of 2015. The refinery produces biofuel from the tall oil that is generated as a by-product of the pulp manufacturing process. The new refinery became profitable within a year.


Putting aside the centuries of tar export and small saw mills set up along the waterways, Finland began the large-scale exploitation of its forests in the late 19th century. By that time, both paper and saw mills were already creating profits for their owners, but also an increasingly comfortable livelihood for the workers.

Paper mills meant sports fields and factory housing; the smokestacks of the pulp mills were signs that the town had health care and schools. But this utopia of benign capitalism was only achieved in the 20th century, and after tremendous hardship. During the Finnish civil war in 1918, scores of men and women died of malnourishment and disease in the prison camps, among them workers from the forests, factories and lumber yards. Food was again scarce during the Continuation War with the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1944, when city-dwellers in particular struggled to find enough to eat.

The success of the forest industry only started to have a clear visible impact on Finland 60 years ago. The development of the welfare state is linked to the triumph of the forest industry.

“It’s impossible to think of Finland without the forest. Its economic and psychological significance is so great,” says Markku Kuisma, professor of Finnish and Nordic history from the University of Helsinki.

The high demand for forest products was also reflected in other industries, such as the metal industry, as early as the 19th century. The forest industry needed the metal and machine industry for machines, ships and lock gates to help move lumber along rivers.

“Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the booming factory towns needed food and clothes, since they no longer had time to make everything themselves, as had been customary in agrarian times.”


The Finnish people would not have become this prosperous without political decisions, points out Professor Kuisma, who has studied Finnish economic and industrial history. “The welfare state was built through policies – it wasn’t just born on its own. The forest brought the country funds which were used to provide schooling to all children regardless of economic background. Concrete wealth walked hand in hand with mental wealth.”

During the 1950s and 60s, Finland’s industries diversified. The appreciation of skilled workers increased, and salaries rose. Finland’s strong trinity of politics, business and trade unions had a powerful impact on the country, its media and salary levels well into the 2000s.

President Mauno Koivisto’s ascent from shipyard worker to the highest office in the nation is a story for the ages. But the Finnish working class and forest industry also produced a host of competent engineers, foresters, machinists, nurses and teachers, when the baby boom generation began to enjoy the educational opportunities afforded to them.

“The new middle class, as the financial and cultural elites, arose from a working-class, agrarian background. In this sense, the post-war decades were truly revolutionary in Finland.”


In the 1980s, the Finnish market was still highly regulated, and the Bank of Finland regulated itself. Then the Soviet Union fell, the European Union appeared, and Finland joined the open market.

During the 2000s, the demand for paper shrank dramatically, and the global recession reduced demand for lumber. There was talk of a depression in the forest industry, even of its end.

Today, Finland has only three major forestry corporations left of the twenty-some active companies in 1985. On the other hand, the remaining corporations are international giants, with most of their capacity located elsewhere in the world.

Is the forestry sector declining? It does not seem that way. The industry continues to generate more than 20% of Finland’s export income, a slightly higher percentage than for the export of the machine or chemical industries. UPM, Metsä Group and Stora Enso are among the top ten forest companies in the world. In Finland, the forest industry employs 43,000 people, and there are plans to construct the world’s biggest softwood pulp plant in Kuopio in eastern Finland.


The history of industry has always been international. The products of the forest industry were exported to England and Russia as early as the 19th century, and right now, wood pulp is selling like hot cakes in China. The UK continues to be an important export partner.

“The percentage of the forestry industry of Finland’s national export has gone down from 80% in the 1930s to roughly 20% today, but production has increased dramatically. There are fewer jobs in the industry, but the impact is still significant,” says Professor Kuisma.

Pulp has maintained its position better than paper in the 2010s. The export of pulp is successful, and the most prominent product is cardboard instead of fine paper. It’s a top seller, says Kuisma.

“Despite all the digital hype, we are surrounded by more physical products than ever before.”

And the material world requires packaging and product cases. All our metal and plastic gadgets have to be packed in something before they can be shipped from one end of the world to the other.

“The cardboard box is one of the winners of this pathetic rampant consumerism.”


A country that has leaned heavily on paper for half a century may struggle to find new innovations to replace this waning business. Enter the bioeconomy – not fiction, and not just politicians’ promises.

“It is always in a company’s interests to seek out new things that could become profitable business ventures. I’m sure that the R&D divisions of many companies are currently working on many interesting things.”

When the role of the paper industry diminishes, but forests continue to be important, the answer may be found in not only biofuels, but also in wood-based fabrics, drugs or new packing materials to replace plastic.

“But the potential of these new ideas is still just potential. On the other hand, it took centuries for the sawmill industry to develop enough for a breakthrough, and 50 years for the same to happen for pulp technology.”

The creation of new products and methods is slow and sometimes unpredictable.

“Besides the fact that we can’t innovate on command, we have to hit some walls before we find the way forward. The universities will do their part if they’re given the opportunity to work in peace.”

Skin cream, snacks and plastic replacements from wood

The cream looks and feels like a normal, creamy soft cosmetic should. You wouldn’t think that it’s made from wood. The emulsifier used in the cream, or the component that binds water and oil, is hemicellulose, a by-product of the forest industry.

Hemicellulose is a polysaccharide found in plant cell walls; it is a carbohydrate that in trees is responsible for their flexibility. Thanks to hemicellulose, a tree will not snap in strong wind, but will sway and bend with it. Cellulose is the component that makes the wood harder.

“Hemicellulose is a significant domestic raw material which can have many applications in the food industry, cosmetics, drugs and beyond,” says Academy Research Fellow Kirsi Mikkonen, assistant professor of food sciences from the University of Helsinki’s Viikki Campus.

In addition to skin cream, hemicellulose has been added to drinks, protective films and feather-light, porous aerogel cubes, which can be used both as packing material or as biocarriers to deliver drugs more efficiently to the desired target in the body.

All of these products are still in the experimental stage and not in production, but Mikkonen finds the future to be promising. While there are emulsions being developed with hemicellulose derived from corn in the United States, Finland is unique in its research on the hemicellulose in wood.

“Hemicellulose is on the brink of a breakthrough. There is nobody else in the world working on this, so we and our partners, Åbo Akademi University and Natural Resources Institute Finland, are in for an interesting few years. It’s been important to develop both methods for isolating hemicellulose and applications for it. We are combining basic research with innovation development.”

Hemicellulose is also good for Finland thanks to its low price: it is available as a by-product wherever wood is being processed, in practically all fields of the wood refining industry. It is also plant based, and its extraction requires only water, which gives the research an ecological component. There is also interest regarding the potential health effects of foods with hemicellulose.

New wood-based products are now a hot topic, believes Mikkonen.

“My scientific dream is to better understand how the isolation from biomass takes place and how the method of isolation impacts the structure and function of the molecules. At the same time, I hope we will soon have many products with domestic, environmentally friendly hemicellulose on our store shelves.

The ingredient made from hemicellulose already has a good marketing name reminiscent of the familiar gum Arabic: spruce gum. //


And what about 60 years into the future, will the forest still keep us going then? Will we let the forest keep going?

The highly educated Finnish forest people will survive, not by providing cheap labour, but with their competence and stable society – unless these things are eroded through short-sighted policies, according to Professor Kuisma.

“Kone Ltd’s Hyvinkää factory has a couple of hundred workers and one thousand engineers. This could be the ratio for the Nordic system in general.”

Kuisma believes that in the future, every last splinter of wood fibre will be used. Forest conservation programmes will not be scaled back; in fact, they will be increased. Production will be more effective and streamlined, and climate issues will increase the value of natural forests. The forest has more value than just the price of its lumber, and this is an increasingly important, even vital, part of the way we think about forests. We can see the smokestacks, but perhaps we are happier here, in the forest.

“Nature tourism is a rising trend, and it will boost the service sector in the future. Climate change will impact our lives, but perhaps there will be room to breathe in the north,” muses Kuisma.

“The success story of the forest continues, but it will be diverse and it will have options. We will live to see breakthroughs that we cannot predict.” //

Professor Markku Kuisma: Publications.

Researcher Kirsi Mikkonen: Publications.

Adjunct professor Ritva Toivonen: Publications.

Will wood construction become Finland’s next miracle export?

Few old buildings remain in typical Finnish cities, as fires have destroyed the traditional wooden centres – with a few delightful exceptions such as Porvoo and Rauma. Wood is the dominant construction material for summer cabins and small detached houses, but it only began its comeback to urban construction in the 2000s.

“Lumber is a significant Finnish export, but we are only beginning to develop our wood construction expertise as a comprehensive export,” says Ritva Toivonen, docent of forest economics from the Department of Forest Sciences at the University of Helsinki.

Climate concerns promote wood construction, as using wood reduces the carbon footprint of construction, which otherwise is quite high. The University of Helsinki’s forest scientists joined seven companies to launch the KäPy project in which they seek new ways to improve the competitiveness of industrial wood construction. The target is both Finnish urban construction and the international market.

“In Finland, strict regulations have discouraged the construction of wooden blocks of flats in cities. Changes to the regulations have already begun to be made during the past twenty years,” says Toivonen, who coordinates the Tekes-funded project.

The project surveys the kinds of wishes consumers have for wooden houses, revises company procedures and provides information on sustainable living to municipalities. Wood construction and consumer needs are compared between Finland, Sweden, Canada and Austria.

“My guess is that good urban living will increasingly involve ecological housing, new energy solutions and urban farming. Wood is a sustainable, domestic and renewable material, and its role in urban economies is increasing.”

One of the example targets of the project is a wood twelve-story block of student flats, currently planned for Espoo, which will be constructed by the Foundation for Student Housing in the Helsinki Region HOAS.

This article was published in Finnish in the Yliopisto magazine in September 2017.

Export countries of the Finnish forest industry top ten 2016

1. Germany

2. The United Kingdom

3. China

4. The United States

5. Belgium

6. Sweden

7. Japan

8. Spain

9. Russia

10. Italy