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Economy / Jobs

How shipping containers changed the world – and your day-to-day life

Shipping containers, it almost goes without saying, do not make good conversation starters. Bring them up at parties and you’ll likely receive a few glazed looks before someone with better social skills awkwardly tries to change the subject.

My advice would be to keep the container chit-chat to yourself, while quietly relishing the fact that most of the things in the room would have likely spent part of their life in one. The European beer and olives, the South American wine and out of season fruit, you name it, it all reached this country in a shipping container.

In essence they are large steel boxes, designed with enough strength to be filled with heavy goods and lugged around by massive cranes. But the significance of containers lies in what they facilitate: international trade. By making this significantly easier, they’ve aided globalisation and changed our day to day lives.

It was post-World War Two when shipping containers really started to dominate trade. Thanks to recommendations issued in the late 1960s by the International Organisation for Standardisation, a Chinese container full of clothes can be lifted straight from a ship onto an American train, from which it can be transported to the shopping malls of Midwest.

Previously the norm was a system known as break bulk cargo, in which each item was separately loaded onto a cargo ship. It was a labour intensive process that required lengthy packing and then unpacking in ports, during which time theft and damage were more likely.


Once the use of containers had become widespread, known as the process of containerisation, the international supply chain was much smoother, and foreign goods flooded our markets. As container technology developed allowing for refrigeration, fresh goods could be taken anywhere in the world. We can now eat Indian mangos, Caribbean bananas, and Brazilian steak all year round.

The global supply chain also developed, as ease of transport meant that companies could build components of the final product in completely different countries. As economists Edward Glaeser and Janet Kohlhase argue about modern-day trading, “it is better to assume that moving goods is essentially costless”. And it is us lucky consumers who end up benefiting from far cheaper products.

But where consumers reaped the benefit, workers suffered.

As the old break bulk cargo methods were superseded by shipping containers, which could be managed with far less labour, unemployment in dock cities skyrocketed.

Liverpool was a prime example of this, as not only did the dockland jobs disappear, but the companies the docks served moved abroad. The city was sent into a spiral of decline, with its population shrinking by 18.8 percent in the four decades after 1971.

The seismic change of containerisation made its mark elsewhere across the nation as well, being the death-knell for a number of inland ports. Having weathered over a thousand years of history and everything the Luftwaffe could throw at it, it was containerisation that finished off London as a great port city. The new method required new ships, which were too large to navigate upriver to the capital. Such was also the case in Manchester and Gloucester. 

For good and ill, containers are everywhere. They’re even sneaking into the housing market. In trendy parts of towns, containers are becoming ultra-fashionable work spaces for start-ups, bars, restaurants, and shops alike. As the UK’s ongoing housing crisis deepens, shipping container “towns” are even popping up for homeless people to live in.

It really can’t be overstated how much these fairly unassuming metal boxes have changed the world. They gave globalisation a triple espresso and in doing so changed everything from macroeconomics to what you eat for breakfast. From the clothes on your back to the fabric of our cities. Still not the topic of great conversations though.
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