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Supply chain crisis need not ruin holidays

As thousands of shipping containers stack up at U.S. ports, warehouses fill up and shops and shoppers wait for long-delayed imports, maybe it's time we took stock.

The media has covered the supply-chain problems as a story of economics — the difficulties of getting goods to market — and particularly what this will mean for the Christmas shopping season.

But it's also a story of excess, of a planet that continues to manufacture electronics, appliances, toys and clothing at an alarming rate without any thought to what will become of it all.

Rather than wring our hands over empty store shelves, shouldn't we at least be somewhat alarmed by the degree to which we are importing all this stuff?

In his 2019 book "Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale," Adam Minter writes, "Thanks to innovations in mass production and marketing dating back to the industrial revolution, the world is filled with more things than at any time in history."

And that is not good.

To be sure, some goods in those containers are vital: automobile parts, raw materials and food stuffs.

But they are also filled with sweaters, T-shirts, electronic games and children's toys. In other words, just the sort of things that might find their way under the Christmas tree.

Most of these items will have a short useful life. Poorly made clothing doesn't make it through more than a dozen washings these days. Children, already owning a glut of toys, either outgrow their presents or grow bored with them.

Changes in technology mean that yesterday's VCR tapes, CDs and cassettes pile up at thrift stores or end up in a landfill. The same goes for outmoded cell phones and computers, which must be treated as hazardous waste.

Some people hang on to their useless goods, stuffing them into storage units — of which there are now at least 54,000 sites in the U.S., according to Minter.

In short, most of the goods crammed into those shipping containers that we are all hankering for — most of what would end up under Christmas trees this year — should be considered disposable.

It doesn't have to be this way. The supply-chain crisis doesn't have to ruin Christmas.

But it can be a wake-up call to be more intentional about our purchases.

There are many alternatives to wrapping up cheap imported goods, including buying from local craftsmen and artists, choosing gift certificates for restaurants or services, and, yes, buying secondhand.

Most children's toys are tossed in good condition. They end up at yard sales or in thrift stores like the Jonnycake Center of Westerly. Buying used toys keeps them out of landfills and supports the nonprofits who run these stores. It also teaches children to be sustainable consumers, a lesson they must learn if we are to solve this glut of consumer goods that threatens to pollute the planet and diminish our resources. The biggest obstacle to living sustainably is our own attitudes, particularly squeamishness about buying used goods and the guilt that drives consumer decisions.

Yes, the container ships bring important products — that local artist might be waiting for new canvas or paints, for example. But they also are a sign that our consumption is out of control. The supply-chain bottlenecks can be an opportunity to rethink how we approach our gift-giving.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.


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