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What a Box Shortage Can Tell Us

What a Box Shortage Can Tell Us

Garth Brown |

This past week I received an email informing me that my order of cardboard shipping boxes had been delayed indefinitely due to a lack of board stock. This comes on top of the three weeks of extra lead time I was told to expect when placing my order. I’m lucky to be a bit paranoid about critical shortages, so I have enough boxes on hand to last for quite a long time to come despite this. But my personal experience is just one example of the stresses the global supply chain is experiencing.

A visible recent example is the trouble Starbucks has been having keeping its stores stocked up. A longer running problem is a shortage of building materials. One reason for this is the same thing that has been plaguing commerce for the last fifteen months - COVID and the closures that result from its spread. Even as America is rapidly reopening, a major Chinese port is operating far below capacity while the region deals with the spread of a new variant. (I’m obviously not a virologist, but from my reading the particular strain causing the problem in Yantian will likely not be an issue here.)

But it seems to me more of the recent shortages are being caused by huge spikes in demand. This is certainly better than shortages caused by disruption, and my guess is that things will settle down eventually, though it may take longer than any of us would like, with bottlenecks in container freight expected to last into 2022.

This relates to last week’s post about the fragility of the food system. What is the tradeoff between efficiency and resilience? Ongoing economic unease isn’t pleasant, but it does not make sense to have a huge excess in shipping capacity just to absorb a once in a lifetime spike in demand.

Still, I do wonder about situations like mine. I repeat that I am lucky enough to be prepared to weather a long delay in getting the boxes I ordered, but many businesses run on much tighter time frames. Commerce generally and e-commerce in particular rely on corrugated box manufacturers to get products from factory to business and from business to customer.

Boxes - or plywood or beef for that matter - are not equivalent to electricity or the road system. But they are necessary components of a functioning economy. In the case of boxes it is a matter of the most basic sort of logistics, literally what packaging things will be placed in while being transported from point A to point B. In the case of food staples it is even more straightforward. A populace can tolerate a shortage of cars in a way it cannot tolerate a shortage of dinner.

If I was an expert on these matters, here is where I would feel compelled to propose some sort of solution to this quandary. Luckily for me, this isn’t the case. My vantage as a farmer and food purveyor gives me some insight into a very real problem, I think, but it does not delude me into believing I actually know what to do about it.

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