TEU: Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit

“It is the physical equivalent of the internet, the other industry which makes globalisation possible. The internet abolishes national boundaries for information, news, data; shipping abolishes these boundaries for physical goods. The main way it does this is by being almost incomprehensibly efficient and cheap. As George points out, if you’re having a sweater shipped from the other side of the planet, the cost of shipping adds just a cent to the price. Another way of putting it would be to say that shipping is, in practice, free. This has had the effect of abolishing geography and location as an economic factor: moving stuff from A to B is so cheap that, for most goods, there is no advantage in siting manufacturing anywhere near your customers. Instead, you make whatever it is where it’s cheapest, and ship it to them instead. As Marc Levinson wrote in The Box (2006), his unexpectedly thrilling book about the container industry, shipping is so cheap it has ‘changed the shape of the world economy’.

John Lanchester, “Gargantuanisation.” The London Review of Books. April 22,2021

A technology that underpins the modern world and is important as the Internet that few of us think about at all, the shipping container.

2 thoughts on “TEU: Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit

  1. Is the technology the container or the logistics management? Even when things run smoothly (no blocked canals, no high-sea piracy, no weather events, etc.), supply lines are often characterized as “just in time,” meaning that they are stretched thin and vulnerable to interruptions and delays. Running out of a toilet paper and PVC pipe are relatively modest inconveniences compared to what will happen when the whole shebang seized up. The story can be spun in terms of either prowess, efficiency, or fragility (and others). Clearly, I’m no cheerleader.

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