OPINION: The global supply chain is breaking down

View of a large container port from a vantage point.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, ordinary flows of consumer items have been altered for myriad reasons. Among these reasons are changes in consumer habits, worker shortages and (un)COVID-19-safe working conditions leading to shutdowns of ports and factories. 

These issues have roots far before the pandemic, though. The globalization and interconnectedness of production of many goods have made the system more efficient and profitable, but also much more vulnerable and exceedingly precarious. The pandemic has highlighted how one small holdup can send shockwaves of delays around the world that ripple for months, and perhaps years. 

However, in an American consumer society, this crisis urges us to examine our habits as consumers — what happens when we can’t have everything we want instantly? It is our responsibility to be selective in our purchases, at least for the short term, and patient and understanding of the stresses on the people and global systems getting our books, blenders and bathing suits to our doorsteps (or mailroom). 

Upon further examination, the situation is even worse than it looks. Not only is there skyrocketing demand from American consumers, worker shortages and limited supply, but also a shipping container shortage — containers have been stranded, empty, in Africa since early in the pandemic, while furniture piles up in Chinese factories because there aren’t containers in which to ship these items. 

Closer to home, Southern California ports are experiencing a record backlog of container ships. In late September, as many as 62 container ships holding about 500,000 shipping containers were waiting to unload in Long Beach. This holding pattern further exacerbates the shipping container shortage, and causes rippling problems for land-based transportation too. 

In addition to the logistical struggles of this pandemonium, it is a financial bombshell. Shipping costs are now, on average, four times higher than this time last year. This increase, in turn, drives up consumer prices. Increased shipping costs also disproportionately affect small business owners, who can’t afford to, say, charter their own ships, like Costco has begun to do.

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic argues that the best solution to this “everything shortage,” as he calls it, is for America to produce more of its own goods. While this vision is an effective solution, it isn’t going to happen anytime soon, and certainly not in time for the 2021 holiday season.

There’s a buzz among major news outlets shouting “Start your holiday shopping now!” This message only stirs the frenzy already present in such a volatile consumer base and strikes me as bizarre to run alongside headlines explaining the extremity of this crisis. Americans’ worrying about a shortage of holiday gifts and acting fast on these fears will only increase the frenzy in shipping shortages and delays. 

Of course, people’s jobs depend upon the shipping industry, so increased demand is not an inherently negative thing. However, every step of global shipping is on the brink of collapse, and the ordinary rules of production flow seem to have gone out the window in every respect. In light of this context, our job as consumers is to wait out this blazing calamity, not to add fuel to the fire. 

While we muddle through this period of chaos, we must be mindful of the impact of our purchases, and the thousands of people who are quite literally sick over the current level of demand. Ask yourself: what do you really need? 

Willa Frank PO ’25 is from Cambridge, Massachusetts. She enjoys petting every dog ever on Marston Quad and professing her love for New England to no one in particular. 

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