Sustainability in Finnish forest policies - and what that means for a Finnish forest-based bioeconomy

This master thesis explores sustainability discourses and framings in Finnish forestry and forest-related legislation to consider how the spirit and ideas of Rio 1992 got translated and retranslated (or lost in translation) into existing Finnish forest policies and strategies. In addition, her research investigates what are the implications of the identified dominant framings in forest policy with regard to the core aspects of sustainability.

Bioeconomy is expected to play a key role in achieving resource-efficient, sustainable societies globally. With its vast forest resources, Finland aims at being a global forerunner of forest-based bioeconomy, which is ought to result in increased welfare of Finnish citizens, while being ecologically sustainable. Given these expectations, it is important to understand the relationship Finnish forest legislation and sustainability. In addition, the Finnish bioeconomy strategy is currently being updated with an objective to: “harness the bioeconomy to create new products and services that drive economic growth and employment while promoting the transition to a carbon neutral society.” (Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, 2020). Bioeconomy is increasingly highlighted as a key concept in different national policies and various EU Member States have published strategies and act on development towards bioeconomy at local scales. However, while often portrayed as a promise of increased sustainability, some previous studies show that bioeconomy and its translations into policy and practice is not self-evidently sustainable (Kleinschmit 2017).

Hence, the aim of my research was to provide an analysis on how the concept of sustainability is framed and translated in Finnish forest policies. We investigated 1. How is sustainability framed and understood in the Finnish forest policies? and 2. How the “Spirit of Rio” is transferred into the existing legislation? In this context, the Spirit of Rio, originating from the Rio Conference held in 1992, means the ambition to take care of environmental issues with a bottom-up approach with the participation of groups that are most affected by the decisions.

Discourse analysis was chosen as approach as it can reveal meanings within texts. The analysis followed Bäckstrand and Lövbrand (2006) framework and investigated specific elements of environmental discourses in selected national forest policy documents, namely: i) ecological modernization, with its promise of win-wins and cost-effectiveness; ii) green governmentality, defined as a discourse where science and new technologies are a solution to environmental problems and will help to move away from business-as-usual; and finally, iii) critical civic environmentalism which  highlights local participation and bottom-up approach to environmental concerns). ATLAS.ti software was used in analyzing and processing the text material. A code book was developed in order to help in structuring the analysis and the material was coded in four different levels, starting from the broadest topics and proceeding to less visible details.

Figure 2. ATLAS.ti was used in defining dominant themes within texts. Example of themes detected around biodiversity preservation.

The research results indicate, that although the language used in the policies refers widely to sustainability, the consideration of ecological aspects of sustainability is weak and often only rhetoric whereas economic values have a dominant role and are defined and translated towards action and practices. There is a clear dominance of ecological modernization and a win-win storyline is visible throughout the analyzed policy documents promoting a vision of growing welfare of Finns from increased use of forests. Furthermore, the results show that there are trade-offs between economic and ecological goals, and a lack of reflections and explicit discussion of them.

The Spirit of Rio emerged in the analyzed policies in the form of suggested co-operation of stakeholders and also emerged in the applied procedures related to a participative writing process of forest legislation. However, the importance (and space) that was given in the documents to participation and the ‘spirit of Rio’ as bottom-up forest governance in general noticeably decreased over time. There were attempts to include different groups in the decision-making through public forums and all policies aim to increase the cooperation between various fields and levels of expertise. However, the most emphasis is put on cooperation between researchers and business representatives, the goal being to innovate new business opportunities from forest resources. The research findings demonstrate, that in the analyzed policies the “brand” of sustainability is to some extent used as a marketing tool and hence risks legitimizing an industry friendly agenda with bioeconomy acting as an opportunity to commercialize natural resources.

My thesis aims to provide relevant reflections to policymakers and the forest sector on whether and to which extent sustainability has been included in the Finnish forest policies. Understanding sustainability framings and dominant discourses in the past and present forest policy making will help to inform ongoing and future forest policy revisions. Revealing the dominant discourse increases transparency and can start a more informed process towards problem solving.


Link to the work in e-thesis:


Bäckstrand, K., & Lövbrand, E. (2006). Planting Trees to Mitigate Climate Change: Contested Discourses of Ecological Modernization, Green Governmentality and Civic Environmentalism. Global Environmental Politics 6(1):50-75 

Kleinschmit, D., Arts, B., Giurca, A., Mustalahti, I., Sergent, A., & Pülzl, H. (2017). Environmental concerns in political bioeconomy discourses. International Forestry Review, 19(1), 2017–2041 

Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, 2020. Updated Finnish Bioeconomy Strategy aims to promote sustainable growth and climate objectives