Could the Supply Chain Backlog Encourage More Sustainable Shopping This Holiday Season?

If delays in deliveries of products encourage shoppers to be more thoughtful in their shopping, this behavioral change could lessen the burden of overproduction on the planet and potentially disrupt patterns of mass consumption.

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

As the U.N. Climate Summit - also known as COP26 - continues in Glasgow, world leaders are prioritizing the mitigation of the climate crisis. Their messaging is clear: climate change will, if it has not done so already, impact the lives of everyone on our planet, and each country must urgently confront its role in contributing to this catastrophe.

This summit is occurring amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, which had additionally ignited a disastrous supply chain backlog. This bottleneck began when factories in China were shut down earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, and caused the entire supply chain to buckle at its knees. Now, ports across the United States, notably in Long Beach, California, are dealing with the aftermath of this mess, with up to 70 ships at sea waiting to unload, ports overwhelmed with masses of shipping containers, and no one to move them across the United States, leaving stores with empty shelves and prices skyrocketing.

This congestion led retailers to have a difficult time “getting a handle on what’s incoming and when”, due to the massive delays in deliveries. The Washington Post has reported that these problems are compounded when all steps of the supply chain cannot move as one, sharing: “Essential freight-handling equipment too often is not where it’s needed, and when it is, there aren’t enough truckers or warehouse workers to operate it..For goods to move seamlessly from overseas factories to American addresses, the oceangoing vessels, shipping containers, cargo terminals, truckers, chassis providers and railroads all must work together, like runners in a relay race. If equipment gets stuck at any point, delays ripple along the entire chain.” This ongoing bottleneck in the supply chain has therefore led to a full collapse of the movement of goods.

Consumers around the world are experiencing longer shipping times and higher prices of goods, given the lack of availability of certain products. Americans have waited months for items coming from Asia, like Peloton bikes, furniture, car parts, and toys. While the Biden administration had taken steps to try to alleviate this crisis, it is not expected that the supply chain will resume to normal processing speeds until the later half of 2022.

As the holiday season approaches, and with Black Friday just around the corner, retailers have tried to spread the message for shoppers to do their shopping now. Scott Price, the International President for UPS, reinforced this idea, by half-jokingly advising shoppers to “order your Christmas presents now, because otherwise on Christmas day, there may just be a picture of something that's not coming until February or March."

In connecting the repercussions of these three major global crises, the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and the supply chain bottleneck, one must consider if the lack of readily available goods and individuals employed to safely deliver them will drive consumers to take a more sustainable approach to their holiday shopping. Will the slower pace of deliveries cause people to consider buying less, or even only buying the essentials? Historically, holiday season shopping usually results in excess purchasing and waste. If delays in deliveries of products encourage shoppers to be more thoughtful in their shopping, this behavioral change could lessen the burden of overproduction on the planet and potentially disrupt patterns of mass consumption, inadvertently resulting in a more eco-friendly approach to shopping.

Outside of a change in shopping patterns, the supply chain bottleneck could also introduce more sustainable ideas for the distribution of goods across the U.S. that would be less harmful to the environment. One of these suggestions is to reduce distribution using 18-wheel trucks, and create newer, faster, more environmentally-friendly train lines. The Washington Post reinforced this idea of a rail link, stating that advocates shared “it would eliminate from Southern California’s freeways thousands of daily truck trips and ease port congestion by moving millions of containers off the docks. “

As the supply chain backlog remains top of mind to many Americans around their holiday planning, consumers should consider how changing their purchasing patterns could be a first step in taking action against the climate crisis. Responsible retailers should encourage this idea of meaningful purchasing, instead of simply suggesting that customers start their shopping earlier. The burden of the climate crisis must be evenly distributed to both producers and consumers, for significant steps to be taken to mitigate the effects of climate change.