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So You Want to Talk About the Supply-Chain Crisis

Photo: APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images

You may have heard that right now, people are having a LOT of trouble buying stuff. Maybe you’ve encountered it, or someone you know encountered it, or maybe you’re concerned about encountering it in the next few weeks, when your extended network of family and friends will be expecting you to buy things for them. This barrier to buying stuff is more formally known as the Supply Chain Crisis, though frankly that’s a pretty unhelpful name, since it doesn’t help me personally understand what’s going on.

If you feel the same way, fear not. I have peered through the murky waters of economic jargon and sales gibberish in an attempt to figure out what is going on here.

How did this start?

This crisis does have a lot of moving parts, which is why experts are fond of comparing it to things like dominoes, Jenga, or musical chairs. Here’s what actually happened. At the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of manufacturing plants shut down or majorly slowed production because of coronavirus outbreaks. Between workers getting sick and mandated lockdowns, these factories weren’t putting out much stuff, so shipping companies drastically cut down their schedules, presuming there wouldn’t be much need to get stuff around the world soon.

Turns out they were wrong. All of us loyal consumers, desperate to summon as many objects as we possibly could into our lockdown lairs, overwhelmed factories with demand. We wanted sourdough starter, and we wanted it now! The factories tried to ramp up production, but suddenly raw materials were impossible to get because so much stuff had to be made so fast. Things on the other end ground to a halt too: Unloading, processing, and transporting finished products are all steps carried out by essential workers, whose safety depended on staggered shifts, reduced capacities, and sometimes total shutdowns.

Can you guess what that led to a shortage in? I couldn’t, so I’ll tell you. It’s shipping containers. All those full containers sitting in ports and loading docks should have been emptied and brought to the next destination, where they would be loaded up with new goods and sent somewhere else. Instead, they just sat there with no one to unpack them. This is where things really imploded, because basically nothing could go anywhere. Raw materials to factories, finished products to retailers, direct-to-consumer deliveries—shipping rates shot up because everything needed to transport things was busy holding some other stuff in some other port that didn’t have enough workers to unload it all.

Because the world never really stops buying things, the problem just got worse and worse. And now here we are, facing down the busiest purchasing season of the year, when what we really need is for everyone to buy as little stuff as possible to help ease the pressure.

Whose fault is it?

Of course, this crisis involves many factors, and the consensus seems to be that basically everything that has happened in the past two years and beyond led us here. Here’s a fun game to play with your family during the holidays: name a topic, and see if you can trace the supply-chain crisis back to it. Climate change? Yup, extreme weather causes disruptions in the supply chain, and we’ve got more and more of it these days. Minimum wage? Absolutely: Criminally low salaries and abysmal working conditions are largely to blame for massive labor shortages. Social media? Duh! Where do you think we get the urge to buy everything that’s put in front of our eyeballs?

Here are some other, more specific entities you can pin the blame on, if you so choose:

  • Peloton enthusiasts: In the depths of lockdown, demand for some very specific products in wealthy countries skyrocketed: home exercise equipment, baking supplies, gaming consoles, desks. The already-strained shipping industry became totally exhausted, and components needed to build some of these particular products started to deplete. The hope was that factories would be able to catch up once things returned to some kind of normalcy, which, of course, never really happened. So, yeah, the sourdough bakers are to blame, and also your aunt who can’t stop talking about how hot Alex Toussaint is.
  • Covid Hoarders: These guys! You know the ones. Maybe you were one. Remember when people panic-bought toilet paper in bulk on Amazon? Dark times. That first wave of panic buying, which hit different parts of the world at different moments, is what initially put pressure on the global shipping industry.
  • That Big Boat: Remember Ever Given? The big, sweet boat that got herself jammed in the Suez Canal, bringing 12 percent of the world’s trade to a standstill for six days straight? Sorry to this boat, but she is also partially to blame for the situation. Because the world’s shipping was already so precarious, anything knocking it even a little off course had a massive ripple effect, meaning that our well-meaning girl helped send the supply chain deeper into a spiral.

When will it end?

There is some good news. First off, though experts initially said this could go on well into 2023, we seem to have turned a corner on the whole ordeal, with shipping rates creeping down and bits of progress being made at ports working through unloading cargo. Major retailers say they’re already fully stocked for the holiday season, which means the flurry of gift buying won’t put new strain on manufacturing and shipping.

In the meantime, experts are saying that the earlier you order your gifts, the better the chance you’ll have them in time for the holidays. Electronics are a particularly risky bet, since a massive microchip shortage is currently affecting everything from cars to TVs to phones and tablets. Retailers are prioritizing stocking small, pliable, and soft products for this year’s holidays, since those are easiest to pack tightly into shipping containers (reminder: the things we don’t have enough of). Earphones, stuffed animals, blankets, slippers, batteries, ponchos, baby clothes — anything that doesn’t take up too much space to ship is your best bet for easing the pressure, and also finding something that’ll arrive sooner rather than later.

Another option is shopping in a store as opposed to ordering online — that way, you’ve got your product in hand instead of relying on a questionable arrival date. Even better? Gift cards or monthly subscription boxes that don’t depend on timely delivery.

That being said, the less you can buy, the easier it will be for every link of the chain to catch up faster. Even without a supply-chain crisis, it’s not a bad time to try buying less overall — mass consumption, from manufacturing to shipping, is a huge contributor to our carbon footprint. Plus fewer gifts in circulation means you’ll (hopefully) receive a little less unwanted junk this holiday season. Pasta of the month for everyone!

P.S.: On the off chance we’ve still got a broken supply chain next year, now is a great time to start a year-round Gifts section in your phone’s Notes App.

So You Want to Talk About the Supply-Chain Crisis