A perfect storm of global issues have combined to break the just-in-time supply chains that keep the world going. From the Ever Given getting stuck in the Suez Canal to Covid-19 changing the way we shop, the world is also contending with China’s rapid shift away from coal power. In response, a system that used to run relatively smoothly is now in tatters. “Any one of the issues that led to this would have caused problems,” says Enda Breslin of ShipBob, a global fulfillment firm. “But all of them put together have caused these massive issues we’re hearing about right now.” The ramifications are enormous, from spiking prices for Christmas presents to a run on Black Friday bargains, empty supermarket shelves, nonexistent car sales, and a frantic grab for the shipping containers usually used to pack and send items around the globe.
The issues knocking the supply chain out of kilter runs the gamut from enormous government interventions to the global pandemic shutting ports. But the best place to start, says Marc Levinson—author of two books on shipping containers—is with politicians. “We had governments all over the world stimulating consumption in the face of the pandemic,” he says. The UK, for example, set out a package of economic stimuluses in the summer of 2020 that was specifically designed to get people shopping on high streets. In the US, stimulus checks sent directly to citizens resulted in a 4.2 percent month-on-month increase in consumer spending in March 2021. We’ve also been encouraged to spend our money online, requiring a rapid retooling of the way that businesses work. For decades, the retail industry’s reliance on shipping has had what Breslin calls “a beautiful stability”: Retail grew 2 percent every year; retailers would publish two catalogs of new products every 12 months, allowing stores to buy their stock in advance. “There was no resilience built into the system,” says Breslin. “That complacency was borne out of years of success.”