Looking inside the box : evidence from the containerization of commodities and the cold chain
Institute for Transport en Maritime Management (ITMMA)
ECONSHIP 2011 Conference, University of the Aegean, Chios, 22-24 June 2011
University of Antwerp
Conventional investigations about containerized transportation tend to overlook the goods being carried to focus upon the associated modes and terminals. The perception of the container as a transport unit must be expanded to consider the container as a supply or commodity chain unit as well. Containerization is entering a new phase in its global diffusion and adoption by freight distribution systems. The first phase of containerization was mainly fuelled by a process of substitution, mostly in the form of the containerization of conventional general cargo. This also led to the development of a global containerized freight distribution system supporting a wide array of supply chains, particularly for manufacturing and retailing. The margin for further substitution is getting smaller as the degree of containerization has already reached high levels, particularly in developed economies, and that the current macroeconomic context is less prone to the growth of consumption, at least in the developed world. The emerging phase of containerization encompasses a complementarity with the commodity sector and the extraction of niche market opportunities to satisfy new demands. This phase is driven by a commodity-wise approach which inherently creates an array of challenges. For instance, niche markets develop or disappear based on temporary market conditions, the balance of flows on trade routes and the need for market size. Still, the nature of the commodities being carried is a fundamental element in the emerging containerization of commodities. This paper aims at analyzing this emerging niche in the containerization process by looking inside the box. It particularly unravels the supply chain dynamics for a number of commodities and demonstrates which role the container fulfills in these commodity markets. The underlying factors that enable the growth or decline of commodity-based niche markets in containerization are discussed. It also looks at the dynamics of the specialized reefer market of cold chain logistics. By doing so, the paper explicitly links supply chain challenges in specific commodity chains to containerization, a link that has been largely ignored in the existing literature.