On Resilience in Supply Chains

In fact, all our societal systems need more resilience. Have you noticed how the pandemic interrupts not just the day-to-day social lives and — for many — their economic prospects but also interrupts global supply chains?

I’ve been fascinated by how many things are simply not available. I’m not talking about the hand sanitizer and face mask and toilet paper shortages of the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis. I’m talking about pretty common consumer goods.

Over the last few months as I started to spend more time doing outdoorsy things to keep our kid and myself entertained, I tried to pick up some simple pieces of gear. Nothing special — a rain jacket, a pair of shorts, some shoes — and my mind was blown how many things were simply sold out. Unavailable. Usually I’m lucky in that I wear pretty average sizes, so that’s never been an issue for (non-specialized) stuff. But all of a sudden I couldn’t get, say, a rain jacket I was looking for in size M.

So I got curious and have been asking folks about this. Lo and behold, supply chains are interrupted just about anywhere. A friend renovating their house waited for months to receive all doors, because it turned out they came from Italy which was in severe lockdown. A surf shop owner told me he could have sold dozens of Stand Up Paddle boards over the last couple of months but only a handful of his pre-orders were ever fulfilled. It’s a story I’ve been hearing dozens of times in all variations.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, really. But we’re so used to being able to just buy everything with a click or two, seeing the fragility of global supply chains surfaced like gave me something to chew on. Because those examples are of course all entirely non-critical; but more critical stuff surely is hit just as hard; and the folks who’d usually be making and transporting those goods are hit harder than their consumers.

If anything, I’d say it’s a good reminder that we need more resilience — not just in consumer goods, of course, but across all societal systems. For one, that means more decentralization. Locally made goods can be are closer to source and consumer, and hence not as easily impacted by global transport systems; and they support local livelihoods. Greening the economy — and I mean massively, absolutely greening the economy — is another. As is, of course, repair and maintenance: Keeping things working longer reduces our dependencies.

I wonder what other strategies we have at our disposal?