Logistics, Shipping Delays & Call Centers 

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I was recently interviewed by Red Fox Merchants for their article on “How logistics slowdowns are affecting roasters, in their own words”. You can read it in its entirety here (and find more great writing on their journal page here) but essentially, they explore how the “now-notorious global logistic slowdowns and cost increases are affecting producing countries and the green coffee supply”. Akin to most industries, coffee is feeling the impact of shipping delays and port disruptions due to the pandemic.

There are several reasons for this ongoing logistical crisis. Early in the pandemic, global ports became backlogged due to labour shortages. Bottlenecks at the docks formed with workers staying home and ships inevitably piled up offshore. In turn, the varied items in those containers slowed manufacturing industries, who were missing necessary parts, bits, and pieces. Congestion means a shortage of shipping containers and the chassis systems used to move them because they are trapped in piles or on ships. This latter outcome has been especially bad for coffee, because we need food grade containers to ensure the rather fragile aromatic and flavour volatiles in coffee survive travel. Any large variance in temperature, humidity, or oxygen levels can greatly imperil a freshly harvested crop.

All these ships waiting at sea are using more fuel, facing fees and charges from ports, and are often ‘blank sailing’, which is a fancy way of saying they are skipping over especially jammed up seaports. Thus, some loads require a couple of extra legs on their journey to reach a final destination. Similar issues of labor shortages, equipment scarcities, and irregular scheduling cascade downward into ground transport and, for Quietly, it means that I must wait two weeks to get a pallet of green coffee from Montreal or I run dry on decaf because it is stuck at the border. All of this adds up to increasing costs and coffee prices are on a dramatic rise but as with most things’ coffee, the actual producers are not benefiting.

To answer Red Fox’s question, I said: “like most businesses right now, the timetable and cost for things has certainly changed over the last year. I like to partner with the same coffee producers year-to-year and harvest-to-harvest but due to logistical disruptions, my calendar certainly has shifted. To stay ahead, I am casting a wide net and bringing in coffees early from multiple regions. It means sitting on more stock at headquarters but also, I do not want to try to add additional levels of stress and strain to my already tense producer network”.

And yet, this is not the complete picture of pandemic Quietly. To add a potentially strange, but wholly related, aside: in his book Capitalist RealismMark Fisher cites the call center as an encounter with late Capitalism. Everybody can relate to the frustration and futility that we all face when we try to get through to an operator. We leap ‘representative to representative’ and attempt to use speaker phone to get through waiting music. As the seconds turn to minutes, and the minutes turn to hours, there is always increasing sense that the entire system is broken. As a crescendo of inoffensive and distorted muzak blares, you are without answers and devoid if hope.

For Fisher, the disillusionment we feel is because there is a global myth that Capitalism is efficient, effective, and always highly operational. But the call center is not a dysfunctional by-product of Late Capitalism, it is a direct confrontation with the system itself. To quote Fisher, “in this experience of a system that is unresponsive, impersonal, centerless, abstract and fragmentary, you are as close as you can be to confront the artificial stupidity of Capital in itself”.

Allow me to illustrate his point with the current semiconductor shortage. Taiwan produces several of the component parts for semiconductors but due to drought they do not have the water required to wash away industrial chemicals. So, a reduced number of parts arrive at the plants in Texas, but a February cold snap prevents factory production. This lack would typically fall upon companies like Japan’s Renesas but a fire recently destroyed their manufacturing complex. No semiconductors mean no chipsets for cars or computers or home electronics because an industry which fosters climate change is being destroyed by its inevitable outcomes. Much like the call center, we label this a ‘temporary slow down’, rather than a consequence! Made all t he more telling if we understand it as the ‘direct confrontation’ which Fisher describes.

Precariousness is built into the very foundations of Capitalism. As much as I want to bemoan such ‘historically unparalleled challenges’, all these delays, slowdowns, and backups are the inescapable fallout of a system that centers the individual, cannibalizes natural resources, exploits all possible avenues for profit, and – ultimately – forever ensures an omnipresent perilous experience for us. We are all stuck ‘on hold’ by the call center.

For Fisher, “Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable” and perhaps rather than viewing this moment as a temporary hiccup or minor inconvenience, we recognize that the current system is in terminal collapse. So much of what is outlined above is due to ‘just-in-time delivery’ models in which companies leverage the supply chain over in-house stock, as a money saving strategy. Unfortunately, it does not work when exporters refuse to send low margin goods because gas is expensive, or there are no chassis available because they are mostly privately owned and rented out, or climate change closes factories globally.

Fisher concludes that “we run into a core issue when we think that it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business”. And while I can easily detail what I am doing day-to-day with more green stock at HQ or relying on a wider set of origins for sourcing, the real work at Quietly should be thinking about how to get away from the exploitative model that the coffee industry relies upon. From crop to cup, let us eliminate all of those elements which foster inequality because we continually demand that we ruthlessly ‘run it like a business’ at each and every step in the chain.

According to Fisher, “crisis is an opportunity – but it needs to be treated as a tremendous speculative challenge, a spur for a renewal that is not a return”. And while he argues “an effective anticapitalism must be a rival to Capital, not a reaction to it”, this seems like a perfect historical moment to hang up the phone.