At most every port in the world, there is a person who serves as the harbor pilot. The harbor pilot is charged with taking a small boat out to meet the monstrous container ships that contain your sweater (or my bag, or her sneakers) as they pull into port. The harbor pilot saddles their boat up alongside the giant cargo ship, locates a rope ladder thrown overboard, and scrambles up it. Once safely on board the cargo ship, the harbor pilot deftly guides the bigger boat through the final passage to docking. “[The harbor pilot] is the least automated thing in the whole process,” says Christopher Mims, the author of the new book Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door—Why Everything Has Changed about How and What We Buy. And the humanness of a role like the harbor pilot’s, he explains, is one reason the global supply chain is presently tied up in horrific knots.
“Supply chain issues” has become a catch-all term for practically everything ailing consumers at the moment. Thanksgiving and Christmas? Cancelled because of supply chain issues. Can’t find Sour Patch Kids, affordable gas, that shirt you wanted online, or even fish sticks? Blame the supply chain. But the phrase has a way of obfuscating the elaborate and often human process involved in transporting goods from one place to another—or even creating them in the first place. Mims first learned about the harbor pilot, while reporting and writing his book, and kept coming back to the role. The job is so dangerous that one in 20 die over the course of their career—all in the name of shortening the gap between us and our stuff.
The problem we’re confronting, Mims explains, isn’t so much a broken supply chain but the limits we’ve pushed it to. As opportunities to travel, stay in hotels, or spend a day at the local fancy spa have evaporated, consumers have poured that money into tangible goods: they’re redoing their kitchens, planting hot tubs in their backyards, and buying more sneakers than ever. Save for unplugging the supply chain and then plugging it back in, Mims says consumers hoping to lessen the strain on the supply chain should keep heeding the same advice we’ve heard for years. “We can be more conscientious about how much we consume and we can make things last longer,” he says. “You know, all the things that Patagonia wants us to do.”
We talked to Mims about his perfectly timed book, what’s really behind the supply chain, and why the hell our sneakers aren’t being delivered.
GQ: Let’s say, hypothetically, that I’ve ordered a pair of sneakers and they’re heavily delayed. What are the major factors contributing to that?
Christopher Mims: Your sneakers started life, potentially, as fracked natural gas in the panhandle of Texas, and then it’s liquefied and shipped to China. There are these very specialized plastics manufacturers there that synthesize the hydrocarbons and natural gas into synthetic thread, which is then going to be woven into a special fabric. And only then does it go to wherever it’s going to get sewn into something. So [if] you think of that point as the beginning of the journey, it’s not.
So the first bottleneck happens before the thing is even really made. It’s difficult to overstate the impact that China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia’s zero-COVID policies have had on global supply chains. The famous example is the 30,000 people that just got locked in Shanghai Disneyland. What happens is, they see a single case, and they’ll shut down a city of 4 million—they’ll shut down factories, they’ll shut down whole ports. The seven busiest ports in the world are in China. So imagine the effects of shutting one of those down for a day, much less a month. So, the first real problem is that people can’t even get their stuff made.
The second bottleneck depends on who makes these sneakers, right? If it’s a really big company, maybe they reserved all of their shipping well in advance, so they’re good. But tons of global shipping happens on the so-called spot market. People are just just like, “Hey, I know that in three months I need a shipping container, what’s the going rate?” Well, pre-COVID, it costs you $2,000 to ship a container of goods from a port in China to the Port of LA in Long Beach. Today, it can cost you up to 10 times as much. That is, if you can get onto the ship, and many people cannot, at all, at any price. So there was no extra capacity in that system.
I want to focus on the origin of the sneaker—its start as a fracked gas. Not to be a five-year-old, but: Why? Why does it move in that order? Why start in the panhandle and then go all the way to China? Isn’t there a more efficient way to do this?
I’m glad you’re being a five-year-old, because the whole book came out of my five-year-old self picking up things around me being like, where did this really come from?The whole system is designed to obscure the origins of everything around us. We care so much about where our eggs come from—did my chicken get treated well?—but where did a sneaker come from really?
The reason that these fracked gases are turned into plastic in China is because that does require a certain level of expertise. There’s a whole lot of mechanical-engineering expertise. And the more mechanized it is, the more people specialize, the more that those supply chains get rooted in one place. It’s why all of our more advanced microchips get made in Taiwan. You can’t just rip up the supply chains and move them somewhere else. People have tried, believe me.
Why is there no extra capacity in that system?
Two reasons. Companies pulled back on reserving shipping capacity at the beginning of the pandemic, because they thought we were going to have a repeat of the Great Recession of 2008. [But] the opposite happened: since about May of 2020, Americans have been on a shopping spree. The amount of money that people were spending on hospitality, vacations, or services—the amount that was reduced—the amount that we spent on goods almost exactly increased. That’s hundreds of billions of dollars worth of goods. We are buying like crazy and shipping companies cannot increase capacity fast enough to meet that demand. There aren’t enough shipping containers, there aren’t enough chassis for the shipping containers to ride on once they get to port, blah, blah, blah. So then, let’s say your goods get into the port of LA. The Port of LA is doing a million containers a month now. That’s the new normal—that is higher than any previous record. So, every month, they’re shattering all previous records,
And the Port of LA just moved to 24 hours a day, right?
Biden pushed them to. And the problem is, every time somebody eliminates one bottleneck, another one becomes apparent. So they moved to 24/7 operations, but the CEO of Flexport [a shipping logistics company], Ryan Petersen, sent some people to investigate and found out that trucks aren’t showing up during the night shifts when the longshoremen are working. So that 24/7 thing didn’t actually help because you don’t have enough truck drivers coming in to pick up those containers.
Why is that happening? Well, because that market’s all fucked up, too, for a million reasons. Part of it is there’s just not enough warehouse capacity for all of these goods. The amount of available capacity in Inland Empire warehouses, which is where those goods go before they’re transferred on the long haul trucks, is down to like 3%. So the ports have so many containers that it’s gridlock. The warehouses where those goods are going have so much material that it’s gridlock. It’s like the LA freeway at rush hour.
And we haven’t even gotten to the step where the goods are being shipped to customers.
That’s the fulfillment level, which is Amazon warehouses and last-mile delivery, like UPS, FedEx, and Amazon’s dedicated truck drivers. They’re dealing with a labor crunch, plus just not enough trucks and capacity in warehouses. The old promise of “you will get your goods tomorrow” has actually just evaporated for a lot of deliveries.
So, basically, that whole system that we got so accustomed to—infinite variety, and get it all delivered tomorrow—is so beyond its built capacity and ability to expand that you’re seeing reduced inventory, reduced selection, or [goods being entirely] out of stock. Part of that is the quote-unquote “great resignation,” which really isn’t a great resignation. It’s just people being like, “Okay, I got my stimmies. I’m gonna wait. I’m going to be choosy about what job I take and maybe I don’t want to go back to working for Uncle Bezos, because that’s a pretty brutal environment.”
I was doing some back-of-the-envelope math trying to figure that out—if they need to sort a package every 14 seconds over the course of a 10-hour shift, that’s thousands of packages a day.
They get a half hour for lunch and two 15-minute breaks. So [it’s] nine hours of absolutely solid work at the maximum pace you can sustain, essentially.
When describing the ship that goes from China to LA, you use the word “efficient.” Do you mean that in terms of energy usage? Because to me, that sounds like an ecological nightmare.
If we could localize these supply chains and make them work, sure, that’d be better. Even though the highest cost of shipping from Texas to China is the cost of fuel, it is still overall a very low cost because these ships are so gigantic. It’s literally the size of the Empire State Building laid on its side. There are up to 10,000 40-foot containers. Each container can hold 50,000 pounds of goods. Once you put that much on a ship, the amount of fuel it costs to move any one of those objects is minuscule. It’s way more fuel to just drive it from the store to your house, honestly. Because you’re getting in a two-ton vehicle to, like, drive your shoes home from Foot Locker.
That individualized action is always going to outweigh doing something at massive scale.
That’s also, by the way, why e-commerce works in terms of the last mile. By the same token, it’s way more efficient for one truck to deliver to 140 stops in a day than for every individual to drive to a store and get their package.
Why does all of this seem to be coming to a head right now, as opposed to at the beginning of the pandemic or even six months ago?
The bottom line is we just have bought so much stuff. And then what has happened is that has completely clogged the supply chain. It’s like congestion on a highway—once the highway is congested that just breeds more congestion, right?
So is the primary cause of this issue simply our shopping habits? If we were buying the same amount of stuff that we were pre-pandemic, would we still be having these same issues.
That’s exactly the right question to ask. And it is 100% because we are just buying more shit than ever. So, let me just reemphasize: every month, the Port of LA, the largest port in America by volume of containerized goods, smashes its previous record for the number of containers processed.
There are specific goods where shutdowns of factories or shutdowns of ports in Asia have been the problem, right? Microchips is a big one.
For cars, right?
Cars, yes. But overall we cannot overemphasize the fact we are spending hundreds of billions of dollars more on goods. That’s thousands of extra shipping containers beyond what anyone ever was equipped to handle before.
How close are we to a robot delivering my pair of sneakers? There are several interesting AI companies that came up in the book that are already using robots to deliver, like, Starbucks on college campuses.
It’s unclear how close that is, because in order to make that happen soon, you need dedicated infrastructure. What I mean is you would literally need a lane for robots. On college campuses it works, because you have this interconnected network of sidewalks and not too many road crossings. But how do you make that happen on America’s road network? We don’t really know how to do that yet.
Over the course of reporting and writing this book, was there one link in the chain that stood out? One that people don’t realize plays this hugely important role in getting their sneakers, or whatever?
I always go back to the harbor pilot, the least automated thing in the whole process. It’s the fact that for every single item that you ever buy, that came on a ship—which is 90% of goods—somebody had to risk their life leaping off of a pilot boat onto a rope ladder to climb onto the shipping container ship to bring it into port.
It’s crazy they haven’t come up with a better way to do that.
The Navy has been working on a thing where it’s literally a jetpack to solve this problem.