Weekend edition—Unraveling supply chains, the science of change, Japan’s cultural soft power

Good morning, Quartz readers!

The weakest links

How goods reach our stores and homes has never been more top-of-mind. Toilet paper, face masks, coffee—the scarcity of these items is forcing consumers to think about the complex process through which a product flows before it reaches them: its supply chain. “My dad didn’t understand what a supply chain was until now,” says Alexis Bateman, the director of the MIT Sustainable Supply Chains program. “And I’ve been doing this for a long time.”

Counterintuitively, globalization has only made our trade system more fragile and vulnerable to disruption. Even though there are more places to source more products, nodes in supply chains have become more singular and specialized, and the need to transport various components across borders creates potential snags. To make iPhones, for example, Apple works with suppliers in 43 countries across six continents.

Now, the pandemic is forcing the world to confront that fragility in real time (Quartz member exclusive ✦). In the past, disruptive events like hurricanes or civil unrest might have been isolated to a specific country or region—if part of a product was made in a factory in Fukushima around the time of its nuclear disaster, for example, a company could simply rely on a factory elsewhere to make it, causing few delays to the creation of finished goods.

The coronavirus outbreak is different. It shuttered factories almost simultaneously worldwide, and caused secondary supply chain disruptions, such as plants empty of laborers (✦) and fewer commercial flights that limited the import of key components (✦). “The problem in this scenario is that every part of the world is impacted. There’s nowhere to pivot to,” says Bateman. “There’s never been an event like this. There is no contingency plan.”

How supply chains have broken down gives us a sense of how they might evolve. It’s unlikely that we’ll see an end to globalization, but once the pandemic has ended, some companies may move manufacturing facilities outside of China or closer to home. Consumers may also more closely scrutinize future supply chains, which they’ll expect to continue to function even in the face of disruption.

“[Supply chains] used to be under the radar in terms of their role and function. That will never be true again,” Bateman says. “For a lay consumer, that knowledge that your product has been moved and produced and had all these actors involved [means] they’re going to be asking for more transparency.” —Alex Ossola, special projects editor


Consider your jeans. We have a whole field guide (✦) on supply chains this week. In one story, Marc Bain details how the pandemic’s disruption has unraveled the garment industry. The production of jeans (✦) , for example, tells us a lot about the world’s trade conundrums at large.

Let’s look at how the denim supply chain evolved over time:

1870s: Levi’s creates the modern blue jean in San Francisco.

1930s: New York’s Garment District becomes home to the largest concentration of clothing manufacturers in the world.

1960s: Clothing factories start migrating to cheaper destinations overseas.

1980s: China’s economic reforms transform it into a leader in clothing production.

2000s: Clothing manufacturing expands to cheaper Southeast Asian nations such Vietnam and Bangladesh.

Present day: The Covid-19 crisis forces brands and retailers to reexamine how they produce their goods, with the prospect of producing clothes closer to home again.

✦ Get access to these articles and a lot more with a Quartz membership. Sign up here for a seven-day free trial. ✦


Cutting corners. The history of industrial design is full of cautionary tales about manufacturers who compromised testing for speed. Will that archive one day include the companies making and installing desk partitions and other new accoutrements of the post-pandemic office? Anne Quito gives us a preview of what’s being sacrificed as designers race to prepare for the reopening of workplaces around the world. —Heather Landy, executive editor

When in doubt, change. Economist and Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt conducted a study that randomized decision-making for people who felt like they were at forks in their respective roads. He found that those who were told to—and did—make big changes were happier six months down the road. Sarah Todd’s look at how our status quo bias is only holding us back is one of those pieces that could quite literally change your life. —Susan Howson, news editor

Unconscious coupling. It’s too late for the US to get rid of Chinese stocks. They’re already deeply embedded in the US financial system, and iconic American exchanges could lose out to Hong Kong or London. In an exceptional, collaborative effort, Jane Li and John Detrixhe explain why the White House and the SEC are so worried, and what could happen next. —Hasit Shah, deputy editor, global finance and economics

The rise of Japan’s cultural soft power. So much of western pop culture comes from Japan these days, but it hasn’t always been this way, Marc Bain writes. A combination of social and economic factors throughout the 20th century set the stage for Japanese art, video games, and television to be some of the most heavily sought-after Asian exports to the West, from the 1990s into the present day. —Katherine Ellen Foley, health and science reporter

Information inequality doubles down on health disparities. Think you’re confused by the deluge of information about coronavirus? Imagine if you didn’t speak English. Imagine not having internet at home. Now you’re getting a sense of the challenges faced by many elderly minorities, reports Katherine Foley. She takes a look at the small nonprofits doing everything they can to get accurate, culturally relevant information about coping with Covid-19 to these communities. —Katie Palmer, science and health editor

Something to think about this weekend

Click it. We learned from this week’s Obsession on seatbelts that Volvo engineer and former aircraft designer Nils Bohlin realized that the only thing keeping automobile drivers from wearing seatbelts was an overlong fastening process (airline pilots, he noticed, were willing to take however much time was necessary). He got it down to two seconds, and his design is said to have saved millions of lives. Sign up to have the Quartz Weekly Obsession delivered to your inbox every Wednesday, for free, by clicking the button below.


The harsh reality of coronavirus scams. When states started scrambling to locate personal protective equipment, many turned to former Real Housewife Bethenny Frankel (to be fair, her BStrong charity specializes in disaster relief). The New York Times’ Jack Nicas tracked down the shady characters Frankel encountered, including a jewelry store thief and a pornography duplicator. He did not, however, locate the millions of N95 masks Frankel was promised. —Liz Webber, senior news curator

The waning patience of Elon Musk fans. The Atlantic’s Marina Koren spoke to several of the Tesla CEO’s supporters about their hero’s public hostility to lockdowns. Even before the pandemic, Musk’s delivery has always elicited strong reactions—he’s either a genius and a “climate superhero” or an erratic, self-aggrandizing industrialist. At a moment dominated by polarization, it’s refreshing to hear that some hardcore Musk fans are open to changing their minds. —Walter Frick, membership editor

Fintech super powers aren’t necessarily currency super powers. For China’s renminbi to truly rival the US dollar, as former US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson writes in Foreign Affairs, China’s economy requires further reform, and officials will have to tear down capital controls. He argues that the biggest threat to the dollar’s role in finance isn’t from Beijing, but from Washington itself. —John Detrixhe, senior reporter

Could Benjamin Button actually exist? Certain corners of the internet recently lit up with speculation over “evidence” of a parallel universe where time moves backward. The reports all stem from data about some “ghostly” particles collected by a NASA research balloon above Antarctica. CNET was the first publication to debunk the parallel universe theory by talking to experts, including a marvelously titled astroparticle phenomenologist. Even better, some of the mystery remained intact. —Max Lockie, deputy news editor

Bask in the sunlight. Celebrities’ social media attempts to comfort us normals have largely fallen flat, from Gal Gadot’s infamous “Imagine” video to Jennifer Lopez’s son delivering Alex Rodriguez a Perrier on a hoverboard. But now Andrew Scott (that’s “Hot Priest,” to Fleabag fans) is here, bathed in golden sunlight, to save them all—and us—with a languid reading of Derek Mahon’s poem “Everything is Going to be Alright.” As Hannah Gold puts it in The Cut, “Gotta love a man who lies with impeccable timing.” Treat yourself.Jenni Avins, senior reporter and hipsteader

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, beautiful lies, and parallel universes to hi@qz.com. Get the most out of Quartz by downloading our app and becoming a member. Today’s Weekend Brief was brought to you by Alex Ossola, Jackie Bischof, Kira Bindrim, and Susan Howson.