Rattling the Supply Chain

What we talk about when we talk about stuff

Once we’ve gotten comfortable with the basics, we often advance into second-order thinking and take the givens for granted. Then something comes along to jolt us into the recognition that there may have been more to consider about the basics, after all. Like maybe they weren’t so basic.

When even a voice from the literary sector like the London Review of Books publishes a 4,000-word story about containerships, it’s a loud and clear message that the conversation about the supply chain, which was mostly confined to the realm of commerce, has engaged the wider world of communication. And that’s before you even get to what “Gargantuanisation,” John Lanchester’s containership story, er, contains. Although shipping “is the physical equivalent of the internet, the other industry which makes globalization possible,” Lanchester observes, it is nonetheless “the great ignored subject at the center of the global economy.”

We can no longer ignore it. The renewed attention may seem to have started with the wedging of the containership Ever Given in the Suez Canal in March, out of which spilled oceans of ink; but for well over a year now we’ve been talking about this stuff — quite literally stuff: what we buy and sell, and how we move it around the world. Yet we’ve been largely unaware of how top-of-mind the supply chain has been, because unaware is how we prefer to be: “We don’t want to think about how everything got here,” Lanchester writes. When suddenly it doesn’t get here, that’s when we start thinking out loud about it. Nothing is as conspicuous, or as urgent, as absence.

In abundant America and so many other wealthy nations, we tend to take it for granted that we can find and acquire just about anything we want — and shiploads more that we don’t want, indeed have never even heard of — whenever we want it, in total disregard of how it got from its source to our house. But the user-friendly relationship of worldwide supply to consumer demand is actually a luxury greater than any of the physical luxuries (and of course the necessities) we can buy. Indeed, the very fact that stuff gets produced somewhere very far away, gets sent out from there, and then gets to us — and that we don’t even have to spare a single thought for this complex procedure — is, Lanchester writes, nothing less than “a modern miracle of efficiency, interconnection and technology.”

This miracle has a name: The Supply Chain. In the corporate sector, we do think and talk about that with audiences of all kinds, from consumers to stakeholders. But for the most part, we devote little communication to the chain itself, because it’s normally so strong and serviceable: the transoceanic equivalent, perhaps, of the undersea cables that transmit almost all our online data. Instead, we focus on the next level: supply chain sustainability, where “sustainability” can mean a number of things: whether the stuff is sourced and/or produced by environmentally responsible means; whether the people sourcing and/or producing it are paid and treated fairly; and so on. These issues are so complicated — and are also very much about globalization writ large, of course — that they form their own chains of communication that go all the way up to the United Nations.

But first the pandemic, and then waves of other difficulties during the year or so since, have changed our focus. The basic function of the supply chain is no longer (ahem) Ever Given. Recall that a year or so ago, toilet paper could be hard to come by. Staples like bottled water, milk, and… Grape-Nuts?… were no longer readily available — sometimes, they weren’t available at all — especially in big box and other large chain stores. More reliable were smaller, independent retail shops and markets; smallness, we were reminded in this age of gargantuanisation, has its benefits, perhaps above all the ability to pivot quickly. Internet shopping boomed, of course, but even the virtual shelves of the global online marketplace were bare in some places; meanwhile, we got nervous about the ongoing deforestation, so to speak, of healthy economic ecosystems by mega-businesses like Amazon (pun intended!), which was not only resistant to the virus but in fact thrived on it.

People began to freak out about the most basic stuff of stuff: that is, how to get it. In natural and sympathetic response last year, ad after ad showed heroic, high-spirited (and safely masked) workers forklifting boxes around laden warehouses, with voiceovers and subtitles promising us that [company] had ensured that [company’s product] was going to be there for us. Before the spring of 2020, how often did any marketing campaign ever bother with delivering a message as simple as: Don’t worry, here’s our product? More than ever, we started hearing from the businesses behind the brands and seeing into the people and structures that supply what they sell. That’s a piece of the supply chain we seldom think about: Who makes that product and how do we get it? What’s their story? Are they trustworthy?

We have mostly recovered from the initial outage and panic, but the ripple effect could end up being quite a bit more severe. For example, semiconductors remain scarce, which means that everything that uses one — (insert long list of essential electronics here, from trucks to toasters) — is also tough to keep in the marketplace, or to keep at its pre-pandemic price. Speaking of trucking, that industry in America is also suffering from a shortage — of drivers, who are being wooed back to work with offers as high as $14,000 a month. Meanwhile, are restaurant workers, refusing to give up unemployment relief subsidies and return to low-paying jobs in the fast-food and fast-casual sectors, inciting a new pandemic of shuttered eateries? The supply chain really means “people.” It’s easy to forget that.

Even the topmost drivers of the world economy, like Elon Musk, whose industries and products depend almost entirely upon semiconductors, find themselves having to act as mouthpieces for the endangered supply chain in the most elementary and half-panicked way: what we never talk about when we talk about stuff has gone missing, and now we have to talk about it. This suddenly urgent messaging is a reminder that a lot of the things we use are themselves containers of other things we never think about. Now we do think about what’s inside those containers, even semiconductors.

Or take lumber, which currently costs a fortune. That’s partly because suppliers badly underestimated pandemic demand, but more substantially because of mistakes in the past which the pandemic exposed. The 2008 recession tanked the housing market. As a consequence, sawmills stopped expanding, and when demand for wood suddenly and unexpectedly escalated during the pandemic, the industry couldn’t meet the need. The problem exposed how the supply chain operates in time as well as space; in 2021 we’re forced to talk about what we could get away with ignoring in 2008, but no longer can. And that discussion leads to others: When we try to blame the lumber shortage as the main culprit behind an outlandishly and unsustainably expensive residential real estate market, we also discover that Wall Street is buying up those properties, turning them from dwellings for human beings into abstract commodities — into something that isn’t a house, in effect — and artificially driving up their value.

And in that discovery, we bump up against the larger idea of the supply chain yet again: the lumber crisis got us to pay attention to real estate, and from there we’ve gone on to another link where the chain is even more snarled. And then the chain begins to ramify almost endlessly. So maybe we should stop calling it a chain and use instead the same word for its twin engine of globalization: a web. And yes, that web does entrap us.

We recently got caught in it yet again. As if on cue, a May cyberattack on Colonial Pipeline caused another supply chain panic, this time over gasoline on the eastern seaboard. The main page of Colonial’s website displayed a media statement about the company’s efforts –and $4.4 million ransom payment to the hackers — to stop the chaos and resume fuel delivery (assuming they could find drivers): in effect, Colonial’s main site became its corporate site.

Supply chain communication has not only taken centerstage, it has actually changed its audience: The country as a whole began looking backstage, as it were, and even at the rigging above the proscenium, directly engaged in corporate messaging that was formerly corporate-facing only. We find ourselves not only caring about but actually implicated in what for many years we were more than content to let commerce and its supply chains go about doing without our awareness: getting their product out of the wings and under the lights of the marketplace. And the theater analogy extends further: A great deal of concealed stage management is necessary — the hiding of the supply chain itself — to create the playacting make-believe of buying and selling.

That theater, like any other, relies on our participatory credulity. Perhaps now we’ve stopped suspending our disbelief. Perhaps we’ve even started whispering, as we occasionally do, in the quiet seats of the auditorium, about how dependent we remain on oil and gas. And there we encounter the supply chain again, in a way: We’re going up the chain from the thing itself to the delivery of the thing and to the value of the thing and our overreliance on it — and ultimately, to how we ourselves are chained.

Probably the last time the monetary cost of oil and gas was this much on our minds was after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (when it was pouring into the Gulf of Mexico, that was another, terrible kind of cost). Before that, you might have to go back as far as the oil crisis of the late 1970s, when most people alive today hadn’t been born yet. Once again, we’re reminded just how fragile these systems are, and how natural it is to forget them once the flow resumes.

One of the chief ways a system weakens is by neglect, of course, but not necessarily by the neglect of the workings of the system itself. Processes and functions and business can and do go on as usual even when unacknowledged; indeed, especially when unacknowledged: The more insidious ones often thrive on their very hiddenness. (As Lanchester notes in “Gargantuanisation,” the shipping industry and its structure is one of the most secretive and unaccountable in the world, its workings covered up in impenetrable onion layers.) It’s the neglect of addressing the existence of a system, that is, in essence, by not talking about it at all and allowing it to remain unconsidered, that makes it vulnerable — or, worse, makes us vulnerable to it when it goes awry or seizes up, which it now does with startling frequency.

Here, then, is another of the many opportunities disguised as crises that have arisen since last year: to spend more time talking not just about the sustainability aspects of the chain but about the chain itself. That opportunity is in fact a metaphor for the elemental physical object of the supply chain: the container. As Lanchester observes, the single greatest revolution-evolution in shipping over the last century — what turned the industry into the triumphant globalizing force it is today — is actually “such a simple idea that almost anyone could have had it.” Namely, “stuff is more manageable if you shove it into a box. That’s it.”

The box in question is a metal container of standardized dimensions, the twenty-foot equivalent unit, or TEU: “A mundane name for something that changed the world, but so is the ‘Internet,'” Rose George drolly notes in her absorbing book on shipping, Ninety Percent of Everything. Before the advent of the TEU, it could take days to load and unload a cargo ship. Now it takes hours. The people who handle and ship them usually no longer even know what’s in a given TEU. To them it’s just an anonymous rectangle, one of thousands in the heavily fortified, inscrutable environment of a megaport. Huge machines move the containers from ship to shore, where a computer algorithm tells another crew how to unload it without much regard for what it contains.

What’s happening now is that we’re starting to change our focus: we’re looking both at and inside the container again. When we open it and take out what’s shoved in the box, we find all kinds of stories tumbling out. The drama of the Ever Given is just one of them. But they don’t all have to be emergencies. The more of them we unpack and tell, the more transparent the supply chain will be. Only then will it be truly sustainable.

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