My name is Riitta Jänkälä, and I’m the founder of cosmetics brand Flow.
Sometimes, a single idea can change a person’s entire life. I remember clearly that March morning in 2003 when I found myself wondering, why on earth was I applying harmful substances to the skin of not only myself, but also my children – after all, cosmetics could be clean as well. At the time I was working as a hairdresser, and I was frustrated with the daily dose of chemicals I was exposed to. Soon, I began to work on skin and hair care products that would be based on nothing but edible ingredients.
Today, whenever I pour oils made from lingonberry and blueberry seeds into a large pot and turn on the mixer, I know I chose the right path. Oh, the fragrance of these natural oils mixing with the soft, organic African shea butter – it is absolutely divine! Each jar of cream, each bar of soap and each bottle of serum produced by us is handmade. We’ve gone a pretty long way since that experiment I once made in a garage during parental leave.
It’s amazing: Flow is already spreading around the world!
In Finland, our products can be found in tousands of homes. Meanwhile, an ever-increasing number of our products end up in bathrooms and cosmetic bags in other countries as well. Flow products are already used by friends of natural cosmetics in Germany, Netherlands, Austria and Italy. In addition, we are currently talking to a Japanese distributor about exporting our products to the land of the rising sun, too.
When I think about all this, I almost begin to feel dizzy. After all, it all started from something so small.
I have always loved doing things with my hands, be that sewing, cooking, or turning berries into jam. I was still on a part-time maternity leave after the birth of my third child, Elias, when I decided to try and make some lavender soap in my own kitchen. Mixing the lye had to be done with great care, so I only dared to do it when my child was having his afternoon nap.
I wrapped the soap bars, scented with lavender, to wax paper and distributed them to my relatives as gifts. I think I would have just forgotten about the whole thing, if it hadn’t been for the rapturous feedback I soon started receiving. I decided to go on with my experiments. Next, I had a go with the more oriental ylang-ylang. Soon there were so many soap bars around that I decided to book myself a sales table in a handicraft market.
And then one thing led to another. But I think that behind it all, there was a strong longing to get back to nature.
I grew up in a small village in Finland's southern Lapland. My parents had a little farm with cows, hay meadows and a vegetable garden. I was still very small when I was already riding a goat named Gunnar and running around the woods with my siblings during the bright summer nights. We were as wild as the blueberries we would pick and munch in the woods. I earned my first pocket money by selling Arctic raspberries that I picked in a secret location.
As I grew up, I started to hear the world calling. Like so many others, I left the countryside behind and settled down with my little daughter, Suvi, in the city of Vantaa in southern Finland. Together with my sister Marju I founded a hairdressing salon called Taikakampa, or The Magic Comb. Then I fell in love with Juho, who had also decided to move to the south. We got married and our family started to grow: soon Joonas was born, and later Elias followed.
I began to search for alternatives to all those strong chemicals
As a hairdresser, I always wanted to learn more and took part in one training after another. Soon I had learned to do nail extensions, micropigmentation and make-up. As much as I enjoyed working in a social environment, I nevertheless gradually started to loathe the strong smells of modern cosmetic care. I didn’t become allergic, but I did begin to search for alternatives to all those strong chemicals.
Studying aromatherapy led me to natural cosmetics, and I started to learn more about the healing effects of herbs and plants. I had never even realized that such a wide array of treasures could be hidden in our very own forests.
The growing season in northern Finland is short, but thanks to the plentiful sunlight even during the nights, plants are able to absorb all kinds of useful substances. The blueberry contains skin-renewing vitamin E as well as nutritious omega-3 fatty acids. The lingonberry, on the other hand, contains plenty of components that not only heal inflammations, but also brighten the skin. Each plant has its own strengths, and each of those strengths has their own applications.
Is it possible to make a living by producing natural cosmetics – even in Finland?
In early 2000s, a number of small businesses specialized in artisanal cosmetics emerged in the UK and the US. That is when the itch began – the idea was born that perhaps it could be possible to make a living by producing natural cosmetics, even in Finland.
After the soaps, I mixed my first face cream. Soon, a body butter followed. I only accepted ingredients that were so clean and natural that you could eat them: seed oil from berries, marigold extract, coconut fat, salt, sugar, apple vinegar…
One day, our car could no longer fit into our garage, because the space had been occupied by a packing table.
At first, I went around selling my products in various handicraft markets and fairs. People were curious about my products: How could they be preserved for two years if they didn’t contain any preservatives? That’s exactly what makes our cosmetics so fascinating! With production methods developed by yours truly, the end result is a compressed, waterless product that does not need any preservatives.
Regular customers started suggesting that our products should also be available in Ruohonjuuri, a Finnish chain selling high quality organic and fair trade products. Encouraged by this, my daughter Suvi gave a call to Ruohonjuuri Marketing Manager Ms Johanna Koskinen. That is how we received our first order from the chain in 2009. I will never forget the moment when me and Suvi stepped into the Ruohonjuuri store in Helsinki city centre and saw our products on display. It was incredible to realize that what had once started as a small soap experiment had grown into a real brand of organic cosmetics!
I rented a bigger facility – and then the recession hit in
The atmosphere ever since has been a rollercoaster ride between excitement and worry. No sooner had I rented a bigger production facility and hired my first employees, than Finland dived into an economic recession. Many of our resellers were having a hard time paying their bills, and for months I was unable to pay myself any salary. At times like that, all I could do was to stay strong and work even harder. There was no going back.
Thankfully, the early 2010s saw a boom in the sales of organic products. Finns became increasingly concerned about what they were putting in their mouths, and what kinds of substances they were using on their skin and hair. Organic ceased to be a thing for the precious few only. The Ruohonjuuri, Ekolo and Life chains began to expand, and we started receiving more and bigger orders.
At the time when I was selling my first soaps at the local market, had somebody told me that one day Finnish supermarkets would start selling natural cosmetics, I wouldn’t have believed a single word. That said, it was one the most important days in my life when the purchasing agent of hypermarket chain Prisma approached me and asked if I could design for them their very own Flow Basic product series. It was the year 2014.
I realized that if anybody was going to do this, it would be us!
Thanks to all this, our small production facility could no longer keep up with the orders. Concerned that the customers couldn’t get what they wanted, I began distributing production duties to various subcontractors. That was the biggest mistake of my career. The customers immediately noticed the difference. The bar soap didn’t feel like it used to feel, and the consistency of the peel was no longer the same as before.
It was time to call a timeout. Only then did I realize that the expertise we had gained over the years was quite remarkable, and that if anybody was going to produce these products from start to finish, it would have to be us.
That is why, in April 2016, we moved all the heavy cosmetics equipment back to our factory here in the town of Hyvinkää. The mixers, perfect for our style of handicraft production, and the soap cutters, ordered all the way from the US, can handle even the bigger production batches. The labelling machine was tailor-made for us and works like a dream.
It is wonderful to be able to work with your own children
It now takes six people to run the Flow factory. Jenni, a Bachelor of Beauty and Cosmetics, is in charge of the make-up products and face packs and takes care of multiple tasks associated to orders. Marika, who left her job as a textile designer to join our ranks, does the soaps and creams and gives her artistic view on the package design. Our multitasking assistent Heidi, takes care of customer service in addition to the visual look of the marketing materials and product labels. My multi-talented daughter Suvi, who is also a hairdresser and a Bachelor of Beauty and Cosmetics, is in charge of marketing and keeps in touch with the wholesalers. Last but not least, my older son Joonas manages the stock. My youngest child Elias, who was still a baby when the company was created, is currently in ninth grade. Time will tell whether he will also find interest in the production of natural cosmetics.
Running a small but growing cosmetics brand involves an awful lot of work. For me, the most spectacular moments are still those when I start to develop a new product with a bunch of measuring cups and sketches for recipes. I just submitted a new order to a cooperative selling wild herbs in the north of Finland. I can hardly wait for the heather sprays, horsetail flowers, lingonberries and bundles of nettles – all grown under the midnight sun – to arrive.