You might have noticed that many of your favourite products have become harder to get. Whether you are a wholesaler, retailer or customer, seeing ‘Out of Stock’ on your favourite product can be incredibly frustrating, not understanding why this is happening can make it even worse.

So why is this happening?

Well the easy answer is COVID, but that’s not the whole story.

Overseas freight is an interconnected spaghetti loop of containers, ships, planes, trucks and people. When one part of this loop is disrupted it has a knock-on effect that sets up a chain reaction further disrupting the spaghetti bowl. We all knew that COVID was a disruptor but world freight has been one of its hidden casualties.

With as much as 90% of the world’s trade transported by sea, the oceans are brimming with container ships, with the largest ships able to transport 19,000 containers at any one time. It is estimated that there are about 35 million shipping containers in circulation globally.

Now these shipping containers are all interconnected and when one country’s movement of containers slows this sets up a chain reaction that changes the worldwide movement of all containers. So when China, which is the world’s largest user of shipping containers, had holdups in loading and unloading at their ports at the beginning of the pandemic this left the rest of the world waiting for containers. As the pandemic spread throughout the world container ships were often forced to quarantine as crews became sick, slowing the movement of incoming containers further exacerbating the problem.

Shipping lines don’t like to move empty containers around the world which becomes a problem when there is an imbalance in world trade. Generally manufactured goods from Asia are unloaded at their destinations in Europe, Australia and the USA and the empty containers are reloaded with produce, raw materials and other commodities ready to be sent on to other parts of the world. Ships are constantly moving around the world trading containers. Globally, as countries have gone in and out of lockdown, port and trucking workers have been impacted by staff illness, quarantining and social distancing along with tighter border restrictions, this has slowed the movement of containers both within countries as well as between countries. After an initial drop in shipping there are now empty containers stuck in countries and as companies restock and manufacturing resumes these now in demand containers find themselves stranded in countries and not always in the places that need them the most.

The increasingly high demand for sea freight and shortages of containers has driven the cost of freight up which has further exacerbated the problem, freight companies are now prioritising their most important and high margin routes and bypassing ports that have higher waiting times. Both Sri Lanka and Australia are currently being bypassed by some shipping lines.

Now the humble container is the new superstar, with producers, exporters and importers from Australia to China, USA and Europe all vying for a date with her. She on the other hand just ignores our attention and has us all wait in line ‘til our turn has come. Promising it will come but not letting us know when.

An amazing look at the amount of vessels at sea on the 11/2/2021 live on marinetraffic.com

So how has this affected us at ImportAnts and our producers in Sri Lanka?
Our warehouse in Sydney is looking increasingly bare, which has been great for stock counting, reorganising and cleaning, however you may have noticed an increasing number of Out of Stock items listed on our website! Last year saw our normally fully stocked warehouse slowly being depleted as due to COVID related delays in manufacturing we were not able to restock as often as we normally would. It has been pleasing in some ways to know that many more people are choosing to switch to eco-friendly alternatives.

Sri Lanka has had its share of COVID lockdowns and delays in production but our wonderful women producers are all safe and now back at work. Their second wave started in factories near where our women work and caused major disruption in Sri Lanka over October, November and December. We are thankful that the excellent safety measures implemented at our factory meant that our producers have stayed safe and well. They are however experiencing a shortage in raw fibres as the trade routes have been so disrupted.

Our producers have worked hard to complete our order and our Eco Max Brushes are ready and waiting to be loaded in a container and sent on their way. Our freight company are working hard looking for both an empty container and an available vessel. Once found the container will come to our factory to be packed, it will then be trucked to the port in Colombo to be loaded onto the next available ship.

Colombo in Sri Lanka is a major trans-shipment port meaning that it works like a sorting house for containers, where they are off-loaded, sorted and re-loaded onto vessels. Along with Port Kelang in Malaysia much of the freight between Europe and Asia passes through these ports, since COVID, Oceans Insights have released data that shows a 50% or more roll over rate for these ports, meaning more often than not containers booked on ships are being bumped and are having to wait for the next available ship. Once our container does make it to a ship it will most likely travel through Singapore, the largest trans-shipment port (and currently recording rolling more than a third of their containers), where it will be unloaded from one ship and reloaded on a ship heading for Sydney. So, while I am hopeful for a date on a vessel soon I may also have to wait again in Singapore. All this confusion from COVID and our interconnected freight systems.

Our producers are very busy making our next batch of brushes so we will have a second container ready to leave very soon as well which will mean that we hopefully won’t have Out of Stock issues like this again.

So next time you find an OUT of STOCK item you will know why and understand that this crazy spaghetti loop of interconnected freight has had a temporary breakdown but will return to normal sooner than later we hope.