Connecting Regions of Asia.

The Weakest Links


How goods reach our stores and homes has never been more top-of-mind. Toilet paper, face masks, coffee—the scarcity of these items is forcing consumers to think about the complex process through which a product flows before it reaches them: its supply chain. “My dad didn’t understand what a supply chain was until now,” says Alexis Bateman, the director of the MIT Sustainable Supply Chains program. “And I’ve been doing this for a long time.”Counterintuitively, globalization has only made our trade system more fragile and vulnerable to disruption. Even though there are more places to source more products, nodes in supply chains have become more singular and specialized, and the need to transport various components across borders creates potential snags. To make iPhones, for example, Apple works with suppliers in 43 countries across six continents.Now, the pandemic is forcing the world to confront that fragility in real time (Quartz member exclusive ✦). In the past, disruptive events like hurricanes or civil unrest might have been isolated to a specific country or region—if part of a product was made in a factory in Fukushima around the time of its nuclear disaster, for example, a company could simply rely on a factory elsewhere to make it, causing few delays to the creation of finished goods.The coronavirus outbreak is different. It shuttered factories almost simultaneously worldwide, and caused secondary supply chain disruptions, such as plants empty of laborers (✦) and fewer commercial flights that limited the import of key components (✦). “The problem in this scenario is that every part of the world is impacted. There’s nowhere to pivot to,” says Bateman. “There’s never been an event like this. There is no contingency plan.”How supply chains have broken down gives us a sense of how they might evolve. It’s unlikely that we’ll see an end to globalization, but once the pandemic has ended, some companies may move manufacturing facilities outside of China or closer to home. Consumers may also more closely scrutinize future supply chains, which they’ll expect to continue to function even in the face of disruption.“[Supply chains] used to be under the radar in terms of their role and function. That will never be true again,” Bateman says. “For a lay consumer, that knowledge that your product has been moved and produced and had all these actors involved [means] they’re going to be asking for more transparency.”
( Alex Ossola is special projects editor at Quartz)

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