How the global supply chain broke
Many links make up the global supply chain. Like a bike chain, when one link breaks, the chain no longer functions and you have to either push your bike home or hitch a ride. You will arrive but you’ll arrive late. Several links in the supply chain have broken during Covid.
Lockdowns in Asia both at the beginning of Covid and later during the Delta surge slowed manufacturing down. Floods in China this year further disrupted production. Those same floods also disrupted global shipping, as did the floods in Europe—floods exacerbated by climate change.
Once the cargo ships carrying goods from abroad do reach our shores, they may have to wait up to four weeks to dock due to labor shortages. A trucking labor shortage has further added to the supply chain bottleneck, with goods sitting in cargo containers and no one to transport them. And even if trucks can haul them, some of those trucks have nowhere to go, due to companies having ordered more goods than usual to hedge against looming shortages. This overbuying has led to a shortage of available warehouse storage.
How Americans have responded
Lower production during Covid has done nothing to dampen an American shopping frenzy, which in itself exacerbates shortages. Sparked by stimulus checks and the inability to spend on travel or eating out or, well, doing anything, we’ve shopped. Many of us, hunkered down at home, transformed our living rooms into workspaces, buying new computers and printers or interior paint to freshen the walls or bookshelves to display our impressive tomes during Zoom meetings.
Between September 2020 and September 2021, our spending on retail goods excluding food service increased by 12 percent. We decluttered like mad at the start of Covid, seemingly only to order more clutter, delivered conveniently to our doorstep.
So what products will we have trouble finding when holiday shopping this year? Shortages have affected pretty much everything, from running shoes to toys to bikes to electronics to cars (irksome for the person who buys cars as gifts).
Fix the demand chain
I’m fortunate to have avoided any effects of the supply chain meltdown. My livelihood doesn’t rely directly on the global supply chain and I haven’t needed to buy any products affected by shortages. A collapsing global supply chain does pose problems—unemployment as the system remains stalled and high inflation as prices rise, for example—which would affect the economy and thus everyone.
However, a collapsing global supply chain pales in comparison to collapsing life support systems characterized by more pandemics, more floods, more droughts and more fires. A re-engineered supply chain will help mitigate the far greater problem of climate collapse, from which no one is safe. Some ideas:
Bring manufacturing back to our shores and produce locally where the products will be consumed. This will slash transport emissions, curb the need for refrigeration (of flowers and food, for example) and reduce excessive packaging. It will also create jobs. Our current centralized system puts the entire system at risk, much like a farm that plants the identical monocrop year after year. Diverse crops reduce the risk that blight will destroy the entire harvest.
Make polluters pay
Reward companies that create products that last and penalize those that profit by baking obsolescence into their wares. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) rightfully places the responsibility for—and the costs of—disposal with manufacturers and retailers who sell wasteful products. Legislate right-to-repair laws and end big tech’s lobbying against them so consumers can repair their broken phones rather than buying new ones every two years.
Nurture a culture of repair
Eliminate subsidies for destroyers (fossil fuel companies) and give even a mere sliver of that money to creators to start regenerative businesses—cobblers to repair shoes, tailors to repair clothing, handy people to operate fix-it shops. Build tool-lending libraries to enable people to mend their own stuff and reuse centers to sell unwanted goods that still have life in them—construction materials, textiles, furniture and so on.
We need to reimagine waste as a resource and find ways to put those resources back into the system. The money saved on hauling items to the landfill and managing our current one-way waste system could also subsidize these ventures.
End throwaway culture
Make throwaway culture as taboo as smoking. The marketer’s dream of throwaway everything keeps demand high for consumer products. Consumers become dependent on throwaway items—paper towels, plastic wrap, coffee pods and so on—and must constantly buy more, much like a subscription service for which we’ve unwittingly signed up.
Make the mad men sane
Regulate advertising and marketing of shoddy goods, food that makes us sick, greenwashed nonsense and ads targeted at children for junk toys that train them at a young age to embrace materialism.
Teach life skills
Reintroduce hands-on skills in the classroom for all genders. Teach kids useful skills that will serve them well in the changing world—permaculture gardening, foraging, cooking, preserving, sewing, carpentry, and so on. Make making great again. And encourage rather than discourage kids to pursue trades and farming. The soil needs young people to regenerate it.
We’ve reached the proverbial fork in the road. One path leads to disaster, the other to a habitable world. The supply chain of old will not serve us. As we retool the supply chain, we must also change the demand side.