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Leon Kaye headshot

The Pandemic is Unmasking Supply Chain Problems We Can’t Wipe Away Anytime Soon

By Leon Kaye
Supply Chain

This pandemic will long be remembered not for the countless problems it has created, but for exposing countless flaws that have already existed. COVID-19 painfully ripped off the bandage and let it all see the light. We’re mired in this reality now, whether it’s what we’re seeing with our burdened public health systems, inequality, racial relations, or supply chains within the food sector and other industries.

Can’t wipe this one under the rug

The impact this pandemic has had on our supply chain reared its head again this week with Clorox announcing that its popular line of cleaning wipes products won’t appear on store shelves — that is, without any hiccups — until at some point in 2021.

That’s a disappointment to consumers who, during this spring, had listened to supply chain experts who said anything having to do with restocking cleaning supplies would get back to normal this month at the latest.

No matter how one may feel about using any cleaning wipes, period (fun fact: the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended many cleaning spray products can work just fine, and in a pinch, you can make your own), this is far from a case in which Clorox did anything right or wrong. Six months ago, no one thought we’d be in the midst of such a crisis, though when it comes to long-term planning, some companies as different as Intel and Waffle House would beg to differ.

Global supply chains are the problem, not the solution

But what this pandemic has revealed is how global supply chains have often become the problem, not the solution, especially when a crisis akin to the one we’re experiencing now wreaks havoc. One problem many manufacturers of wipes face is that one of the key raw materials in cleaning wipes, polyester spunlace, is also critical for the manufacture of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as surgical masks and gowns.

Even if that coveted polyester spunlace can be found in other nations, other snags can hit the supply chain, including many companies’ reliance on China for making the plastic canisters used to package wipes.

Meanwhile, the manufacturing of paper products such as toilet paper, the shortage of which launched a million memes earlier this year, has largely stabilized in the U.S. But that’s because most companies in this space rely on pulp sourced from the Americas.

Bottom line: Do you want wipes or protective equipment?

Global supply chain risks have been exposed as open sores on the business landscape as healthcare systems and governments scramble to ensure they have adequate supplies of protective equipment. Countless heads of companies and government agencies have since questioned the conventional wisdom of sourcing such products from abroad — and the flooding that hit much of China last month added another reminder that it doesn’t take much to disrupt any company’s supply chain.

True, smart companies can pivot quickly during a time like this. They can swap canisters for soft-sided packaging. They can scramble to find different-sized containers. And sure, at a time when consumers aren’t so persnickety, fancy colored tabs and labels can be ditched – no one is going to fuss over the appearance of a roll of wipes.

But once we emerge from this pandemic and settle in for a long debrief over what went wrong and what could have been done to prepare us, there will be room on that list for how companies approach their supply chains. A more localized supply chain isn’t just about preparedness in the face of disaster: There are also opportunities to build local communities with good jobs while strengthening brand reputations. Trust is in short supply now, and it will be invaluable for companies in the long run. Becoming, procuring, and operating more locally will prove to be both a smart and remunerative strategy.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye