Opinion

The supply chain is an unlikely Ghost of Christmas Present

Christmas shopping in October reveals the limits of our instant gratification economy

This summer, while visiting a stretch of pristine coastline on an island outside of Seattle, I spotted something out of place. A container ship, loaded with sunset-hued cargo, was anchored across the harbor, far from the Puget Sound shipping lanes where it belonged — a hulking, unsightly, and noisy migrant among the bay's resident kayaks, sailboats, and small crabbing boats. Only later would I learn that I'd been lucky to stumble upon just the one unwelcome behemoth: According to local reports, "As many as four container ships at a time have been anchoring in normally quiet Holmes Harbor since last April because of shipping congestion at the Port of Seattle and beyond."

You may likewise already be acquainted with America's port crisis, dubbed the "Great Supply Chain Disruption" of 2021 or, perhaps more fittingly, "the Everything Shortage." If you haven't encountered it yet, you will soon: Stores are urging customers to begin their holiday shopping now, in October, to avoid the inevitable bottleneck that will result from high demand, limited supply, labor shortages, and congested ports.

The crisis is already expediting the dreaded Christmas creep. But it's also threatening to reveal to American customers the fragility of our "I want it now" mindsets. Instant gratification — normalized over the past decade by Amazon Prime and its promise of two-day shipping — has completely warped the way we shop. The supply chain has become an unlikely Ghost of Christmas Present, exposing the nature of our wealth and its flipside of want.

I am as prone to instant gratification as any. The night before a mountaineering trip a few months ago, for example, I belatedly realized I didn't have my preferred blister-preventing sports tape for my stiff climbing boots. I placed an Amazon order after dinner and woke up when the delivery person dropped the tape at my door a few hours later, around 4 a.m.

Amazon's incredible speed is becoming the norm. Other companies, to compete, have ramped up their fulfillment pace, too. But this modern-day miracle comes at a cost: the exploitation of workers. In the case of Amazon, it's the horror stories we've heard but usually ignore for personal convenience — the ones about the company sacrificing the safety (and in some cases, lives) of its delivery workers in favor of speed and low costs.

But it's also other stories we may not know. Many supply chain issues can be traced to the Delta variant ravaging under-vaccinated parts of Asia. For example, in order to meet the U.S. consumer demand, the government of Vietnam has "[adopted] strict measures, including a 'three-in-one-place' policy that requires employees in some highly affected regions to eat, sleep, and work in the workplace to avoid catching and spreading the virus," The Wall Street Journal writes. Consider also that "about half of the world's sailors, who are crucial to the flow of global trade, are from developing nations where vaccine rollouts have been slow," as Vox reports

Often we can ignore that exploitation, but the supply chain crisis highlights it. "In short," explains The Atlantic, "supply chains depend on containers, ports, railroads, warehouses, and trucks." And currently, "[e]very stage of this international assembly line is breaking down in its own unique way."  

This is all coming to a head right now, and the effect for consumers is an early commercial Christmas. "I went to Lowe's, Home Depot, T.J. Maxx, HomeGoods, and I'm already seeing Christmas stuff replace the Halloween stuff, which is ridiculous," one shopper complained to The Wall Street Journal. "I'm like, hello? Are we just skipping Halloween this year?"

Actually, yes: While people should be spending the week of Oct. 11th shopping for Elsa costumes and 12-foot-tall skeletons, it's looking more like Dec. 18 out there. Stores are pushing customers to place their holiday orders now — or, preferably, yesterday — due to limited stock. Booksellers, who rely on winter sales to put them in the black for the year, are alarmed by publishing delays, compounded by paper shortages, on top of the global supply chain choke. "October is the new December," the American Booksellers Association has declared, reusing the slogan it rolled out amid early signs of stock issues last year. Even Christmas trees may be in short supply

It is a testament to the power of the American economy that, up to this point, we've been able to enjoy the luxury of showing up to a mall on Dec. 23 expecting to find a Bratz doll for our niece still on the shelf. (In 2017, a survey by the National Retail Foundation found, just over half of Americans did their holiday shopping on the Saturday before Christmas.)

This system is incredibly convenient, but is it good? Tasked with holiday shopping weeks away from the all-encompassing frenzy of Black Friday and forced to consider what I want to buy for December in October, I've had a clear-eyed reckoning with the amount of unnecessary consumption I do this time of year. And while I'm a secular celebrant, I share my former colleague Matthew Walther's unease over the way we've historically "allow[ed] corporate marketing departments to set the tempo of our existence."

I'd like to think this supply chain crisis will be a turning point for Americans, an opportunity for us to collectively remember that the holidays aren't actually about what's under the wrapping paper. Alas, I'm not that naïve. More likely, a lot of confused children will be getting I.O.U.s from Santa for presents that will arrive on Jan. 15. 

But maybe, in the flash of irritation that comes from checking the tracking number of a shipment that's making no progress or scanning the bare shelves of a local store, we'll briefly recognize our own entitlement. Maybe we'll notice, if only for an instant, how a system in which we expect goods to magically materialize in our hands is as fragile and unsustainable as one in which they're delivered to our door by a cadre of flying reindeer.

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