Stockpile substitution could have major consequences

Customers substituting analogous products during the coronavirus outbreak could have disastrous consequences on infrastructure and supply chains.


The UK has seen panic-buying of products such as toilet paper set in as the scale of the coronavirus pandemic has grown. As a result, many consumers have also been stocking up on similar products like kitchen towels, assuming the two could be interchangeable in times of crisis. But the public is now being warned of some of the problems associated with swapping out products that appear on the surface to be analogous. The behaviour could have major impacts not just on supply chains, but also on sewage and plumbing systems.

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“We are seeing shortages of toilet paper but worryingly also shortages of paper kitchen towels and industrial paper towel used for example, in garages and workshops and other wipe products,” said Richard Wilding, Professor of Supply Chain Strategy at Cranfield School of Management.

“If kitchen towels, baby wipes or industrial papers are used as a replacement for toilet paper, our sewage systems could readily become blocked with the resulting chaos and increased health risks associated with this. Ultimately, water companies may not have the infrastructure and equipment to unblock the sewer system.”

Thames Water has already warned customers not to use kitchen roll in place of toilet paper, claiming it could cause significant damage to the wastewater infrastructure. Another item where customer substitution is occurring is with facemasks. As pharmacies have run out of stock, consumers have turned to hardware stores to panic buy dust masks and protective clothing designed for the building industry.

“This means builders, tilers and plasterers or other workers who regularly use masks for protection against airborne particulate matter, for instance, are struggling to get hold of this equipment from certain suppliers,” Professor Wilding continued.

“Yet the construction industry relies on this protective equipment for people to carry out their work – as employers, companies can’t expect their staff to continue without it and regulations place a duty of care on every employer to provide the appropriate safety equipment. Without such equipment employees are unable to work and companies are subsequently unable to undertake work. UK companies who supply these sectors are starting to feel the strain on certain protective equipment items and this needs to be monitored very carefully.”

According to Professor Wilding, these situations are known as ‘supply chain parallel interactions’, where ordinarily unrelated supply channels are disrupted by extraordinary circumstances.

“In this case, the consumer supply of medical face masks is drying up, so customers turn to industry sources,” he said. “Similarly, the substitution of kitchen towels for toilet paper will have a knock-on effect of disrupting the sewage treatment supply chain – causing shortages in their supply chain as a knock-on effect and a disrupting a seemingly unrelated industry.”