Home / EU Sozialdialog / Sectoral ESD / Woodworking / General overview

General overview of sector

The woodworking industry has become increasingly prominent in the European Union with successive EU enlargements (Sweden, Finland, etc.). Having experienced a lengthy crisis period and then been faced with growing international competition, the European woodworking industry adopted a strategy of specialisation, diversification and sustainable management of Europe’s forests.

The woodworking sector currently consists mainly of small and medium-sized enterprises. Over 3 million workers are employed by the 340,000 or so SMEs operating in the EU.

The forestry sector and the woodworking industry in the EU came to prominence with the 1995 enlargement (Sweden, Austria and Finland). The extent of forest cover in the EU-12 was in fact modest (around 25%), whereas Austria, Finland and Sweden all have a high proportion of afforested land (more than 60% of the total). In quantitative terms, the enlargement of Europe from 12 to 15 countries doubled the surface area of the EU covered by forest. Self-sufficiency in timber supplies rose from 55% in 1994 to 91% in 1996 (Agence Europe, 29 June 1998).

Today, according to Eurostat, forests and other woodland areas make up 177 million hectares, or 42% of the surface area of the EU-27. 73% of this afforested land (i.e. 129 million hectares) was available for timber production in 2005.

The woodworking sector comprises activities ranging from furniture-making to carpentry/joinery and door manufacturing; it encompasses mechanical woodworking, sawmills, packaging, commerce and the importing of timber and its derivatives. The sector is distinctive for its large proportion of SMEs (owing to the family structure of most craft industries in the past).

Having experienced a severe crisis throughout the 1970s and in the early 1980s, and having then faced growing international competition, the woodworking industry deliberately invested in the introduction of new products and new manufacturing technology in the 1990s. Many SMEs have adopted a strategy of specialisation and diversification.

Today, over and above the issues of enlargement and trade globalisation, the woodworking sector is confronting two major economic challenges: the trade in illegally logged timber and its derivatives, and sustainable forestry management in Europe. An International Tropical Timber Agreement (ITTA) was concluded in 2006. On 17 October 2008 the European Commission put forward a "forestry package" aimed at preventing the sale of illegal timber in Europe. On 17 February 2009 the European Parliament's Committee on the Environment called for stringent regulation, on the grounds that between 20 and 40% of industrial timber production worldwide comes from illegal sources, almost 20% of which enters the European market.

Finally, it is worth noting that wood consists of 50% carbon; on account of the biomass and the humus that forms in the ground beneath them, forests are in fact a means of combating greenhouse gases.

ETUI and Observatoire Social Européen (2010) European Sectoral Social Dialogue Factsheets. Project coordinated by Christophe Degryse, online publication available at www.worker-participation.eu/EU-Social-Dialogue/Sectoral-ESD