'Arriving Today' Chronicles How Consumer Goods Go From Factory to Front Door

Christopher Mims' book will make you think about how, why and what we buy.

Container ship being unloaded

Avigator Photographer/ Getty Images

As I am writing this, the world is experiencing chaos in the supply chain so extreme that headlines are threatening that "Christmas is canceled" and it is only mid-October. There are many contributors, but the main source of the problem is the pandemic and how it disrupted the dynamics of supply and demand.

Arriving today Cover

Harper Collins

The day after the first case of the coronavirus was confirmed in the U.S., Christopher Mims was in a container port in Vietnam, writing "Arriving Today," a story about how "things get from the factory, mostly in Asia, to the front doors of the homes and offices in the biggest consumer economies in the world, and specifically my own country, the United States." Talk about timing! 

I was interested in this book for a number of reasons. I have followed the work of Mims since he was writing for the MIT Technology Review—he was first in Treehugger when I disagreed with a post he wrote about 3D printing. I cannot find my story but recall that he was right and I was wrong. I disagreed with him about prefab housing (I was right) and self-driving cars (too soon to tell). Definitely, if there is a difference of opinion between me and Mims, put your money on him.

But I was also interested in the book for personal reasons: I grew up in a household dominated by talk of ships, trucks, and trains. My father was a pioneer in the shipping container industry, and when that company was sold he went into transport trailers. I still cannot watch a train go by and not look at all the boxes, searching for the few old blue "Interpool" ones that were once his—it's in the blood.

I bought the book for personal reading and didn't even think I would be writing about it for Treehugger. But it turned out to be one of the most Treehugger-appropriate books I have read because it describes how the world works: how and where things are made, and how they move, how they get to us so quickly, and at what cost. And, of course, the question of our instant gratification, "everything-on-demand by tomorrow" economy. His tweet gave me a great hook.

Mims is following an imaginary USB charger from Vietnam to a house in the U.S., traveling most of the distance inside a shipping container that moves from truck to barge to container ship and back to truck again. He makes a wonderful analogy: "If the basis of the internet is a packet of data, the shipping container is its equivalent in the physical world, the discrete unit upon which depends nearly all global exchange of manufactured goods."

It's brilliant because whether it is the information in the packet of data or the USB charger in the shipping container, it goes nowhere without the infrastructure, the pipes. The container is just a dumb box without the crane that moves it from the trucks to the yards to the giant ships, all designed around it. The most important part of the container is the corner casting, the cubes of steel at each corner, universally 8 feet by 20 or 40 feet apart; that is the operating system that lets it get picked up and moved and stacked and locked, but most importantly, move so quickly. 

Before containers, everything moved by "break-bulk" shipping, with longshoremen digging stuff out of the holds of ships. It could take weeks, and needed a lot of people. Mims has a whole chapter, "Longshoremen against the Machine," about the endless battles that have been going on since the 60s to preserve these union jobs, the vast majority of which have disappeared. And not just jobs, but perks: my dad told me once that the longshoremen wanted the right to open containers and take a percentage of the contents, just like they always did in the break-bulk days.

I could go on about the five chapters devoted to boats and ports and handling equipment, but this is supposed to be a review, so I will just say that I have read most of the books on this subject and I have followed it all my life, and this is probably the best and most accessible explanation of it that I have read yet.

Mims then moves on to how our factories and homes are organized around "scientific management, starting with Frederick Winslow Taylor, moving on to Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, who brought scientific and time management into our homes. All of this was supposed to make life easier and more convenient but had a different effect. Mims writes: "One of many ironies of scientific management is that by the measure of its ability to reduce the total quantity of humanity’s labors, it was a complete failure. Taylorism was in the end not an efficiency but a productivity movement." Getting more productivity out of employees becomes a dominant theme in the book in later chapters after we learn about the trucking industry.

Here again, Mims is writing about a subject that I have some family familiarity with. Mims describes how difficult it is, how little money the drivers make, how they are exploited. It did not have to be this way: My dad said all that freight should be going by rail and trucks should not be mixed with cars on the highways, that it was an invitation to carnage and disaster and wasted resources. 

Insterstate highways

US Department of Transportation

But the U.S. government built the Interstate Highway System as a vast subsidized defense project,(yes, Mims has a chapter on this) while the rails were all owned and maintained by the railway companies. My dad invented the term "land bridge" to describe moving containers across the continent, but the railways bled dollars as freight moved to trucks and never were able to make the kind of technology and infrastructure investments to do for rail what the shipping companies did for ships. So now we have trucks carrying goods across the country with a driver for each one working too many hours under dangerous conditions when a single train could carry a few hundred trailers or containers with two engineers driving the train on a separated route. It could have been a different world. Instead, as Mims writes:

"Consider what happens when a passenger vehicle cuts off a tractor trailer on the highway, which according to the average trucker, and my own observations during the 400-mile journey with Robert, happens at least once an hour... It takes 200 feet for a fully loaded tractor trailer to stop when it’s traveling fifty-five miles an hour. It takes significantly more distance—a football field or more—for it to come to a stop when it’s traveling faster and the roads are bad."

Many years ago I was driving my Volkswagen Beetle and cut in front of a tractor-trailer just before a red light on a major city street in Toronto. The driver got out, pulled open my door, and punched me in the face. I thought about going to the police but noticed he was pulling one of my dad's trailers. I called my dad and he said, "You deserved it! Never, ever, cut in front of a truck like that." Forty years later, I have never forgotten that lesson. Most people have never learned it.

And then, our USB charger is dropped into the world of Amazon. Mims writes: "What follows is an account of how goods move through a sort of platonic ideal of a fulfillment center, informed by the accounts of workers at Amazon’s Shakopee, Minnesota, fulfillment center just outside Minneapolis, and also by research and reporting at other Amazon fulfillment centers of the latest generation, most notably the one in Baltimore, Maryland."

It is a tale of the transition from Taylorism through Lean to what Mims calls Bezosism, noting that "people who are invested in dreams of technology easing our burdens by giving us more power over the world often forget that technology in no way changes the power structures that govern it." Jeff Bezos never forgets this. Every single move has one purpose: productivity. Simplification. Deskilling. Automation. 

"The spinning jenny, Jacquard loom, and numerical machine tool, all milestones in the industrialization of manufacturing, took knowledge that used to be in the heads of skilled craftspeople and embodied it in a machine that made them redundant. Today, automation does this and more: it makes possible things that no human could accomplish without it."

In the end, Mims dons a UPS uniform and follows his USB charger to the end of its 14,000 mile journey "miles, across twelve time zones, by truck, barge, crane, container ship, crane, and truck again, all before it trundled down a few hundred yards of conveyor, flitted about on the back of a robot, and was ferried again on, all told, miles more conveyor and at least two more trucks, before being hand-carried to someone’s front door."

It sort of ends with a thud there; I want more. There is another book in this. As Mims noted in his tweet, "Thinkpiece I would read: Supply chain issues, rising prices and shortages are a chance for us to rethink our instant-gratification, everything-on-demand by tomorrow economy"

I want to apologize for talking more about my dad than about this book. But I do it to make the point that Mims has done such a wonderful job here of describing how shipping, containers, and trucking works, and it brought back so many memories. It is well-researched, well-written, and makes a complex subject comprehensible. It caught the nuance.

Anyone who reads this book and cares about what has happened to our economy, how we don't make anything anymore and depend on this now obviously fragile supply chain, has a new incentive to reconsider how, why and what we buy. Mims should write that think piece as volume II: Volume I was brilliant.