Striving towards paperless global trade

10 Min read | July 26, 2023
Imagine a world with a seamlessly digital sustainable supply chain. Where all parties from shippers to carriers, financers, freight forwarders and beyond collaborate for efficiency, the best customer experience and reduced environmental impact. The shipping industry is striving for a future that is no longer encumbered by analogue tools.
In this pursuit, every stakeholder shoulders a crucial responsibility. Carriers, shippers, ports, financial institutions, importers and governments must unite to usher in a shipping revolution and embrace a world of paperless trade.  The path to change is not without challenges. Shipping processes are inherently complex, they involve a myriad of systems, regulations and links in the chain. Collaboration has never been more critical as we bid for digitalisation and a greener future for container shipping. The good news is that significant strides have been taken: the Future International Trade (FIT) Alliance of DCSA, BIMCO, FIATA, ICC and SWIFT was formed to advocate for the digitalisation of international trade. 

Paper-based processes hamper global trade 

Digitalisation has already transformed numerous industries, unlocking unprecedented levels of efficiency, sustainability, and improved customer experiences. However, the continued reliance on the exchange of physical documents in container shipping, reminiscent of the practices of the 17th century, hampers information flow, needlessly holding supply chain stakeholders back.  Delays in the movement of vital cargo documents create ripple effects that impact port operations and supply chains, ultimately disrupting manufacturing processes and consumers’ access to goods.  Yet despite this, and the many other downsides of exchanging paper, documents needed to complete international trade transactions often aren’t standardised or digitally available. Industry leaders must work together to change this and lend a hand to building a more effective and environmentally conscious future for shipping.  Nowhere is this need more apparent than with the bill of lading (B/L) process, where paper continues to lead the way. At DCSA, we are driving the change toward the adoption of electronic B/Ls (eBLs) – successfully organising a major commitment from carriers to 100% eBL adoption by 2030. BIMCO launched the “25 by 25 pledge” for some of the biggest shippers in the bulk sector for 25% of annual seaborne trade volume for at least one commodity to use eBLs by 2025; 26 of FIATA’s Association members have adopted the eFBL (electronic FIATA bill of lading) and have begun to distribute it to their members.   

What paperless global trade can achieve 

With global trade set to double in real terms and quadruple in dollar terms by 2050, a worldwide transition away from legacy processes must take place so that the supply chain can work smarter.  A 2022 report from the Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda estimated that adopting digital trade documents could generate $1.2 trillion for member countries by 2026, with exporters cutting costs by about 75%.  Digitalisation in container shipping will unlock trade, it will simplify information exchange, support real-time insights and reduce costs. It can also contribute to sustainability efforts by minimising print and reducing courier transportation of printed documents.  

How can global trade go paperless? 

Interoperable systems can pave the way for paperless global trade by enabling seamless data exchange and eliminating the current practice of manually aggregating data from various channels. This will transform operations, save labour and free up skilled operatives to focus instead on the customer experience. Interoperability plays a crucial role because without it, supply chain stakeholders must subscribe to the same platforms to exchange information. This is an obstacle to rapid and effective information exchange because signing up to multiple platforms takes time and resources.  Digital standards provide the means for system interoperability and platform-agnostic, seamless data exchange.  They create a structure for the transfer of standards-based information between platforms, providing bridges to connect ”digital islands“.    

Making paperless global trade happen 

DCSA’s standards can help smooth the path towards paperless trade so that stakeholders along the supply chain can rapidly exchange digital information. You can get a full overview of DCSA’s standards, including eBL, from the DCSA standards page.  To learn more about paperless trade, the changes it can bring within the shipping ecosystem, and the impact it can have on global trade, access DCSA’s ebook, Streamlining international trade by digitalising end-to-end documentation. You can also hear from Thomas Bagge, DCSA’s CEO, alongside industry panellists in this video discussing how digitalisation will happen.  To stay up to date with DCSA’s news and the industry’s progress towards digital trade, we hope you will also subscribe to our community.   Collaboration and standardisation are paramount to transform container shipping. The shipping sector is ready for innovation. We look forward to witnessing a reality where shippers, carriers, and all parties in the supply chain, are unencumbered by legacy processes and environmentally unsustainable practices. Let’s collaborate and step into the new age of digital information exchange. 

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