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Future International Trade (FIT) Alliance: 2023 in review

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AMSTERDAM : This year, the Future International Trade (FIT) Alliance has been busy in its continued pursuit of the digitalisation of international trade. From a far-reaching declaration with more than 100 signatories, to awareness-raising events and technical proof-of-concepts, member organisations have worked tirelessly to further the Alliance’s aims and benefit all stakeholders in the global trade ecosystem.  

The FIT Alliance comprises BIMCO, DCSA, FIATA, ICC and Swift. Its key objective is to raise awareness and encourage greater use of digital shipping standards and electronic bills of lading (eBLs) across shipping and multimodal transportation.  In this article, we look back on the significant events of 2023 for the Alliance and consider what lies ahead in 2024

FIT Alliance Declaration 

In September, members of the FIT Alliance backed eBLs by declaring they will secure commitment from stakeholders in international trade to collaborate on driving digitalisation. This built on the significant momentum behind eBL adoption among FIT Alliance member organisations. Both DCSA and BIMCO have received adoption commitments from key stakeholder constituents. Through BIMCO’s ’25 by 25 Pledge’ and DCSA’s 100% eBL by 2030initiative, some of the world’s largest bulk shippers and nine of the top 10 container shipping companies have committed to switch their B/Ls to eBLs within two to seven years. Meanwhile, 27 countries have implemented the FIATA eFBL (electronic FIATA bill of lading) standard with more than 600 eFBLs now being used around the world. 

The FIT Alliance Declaration is a significant milestone because the end-to-end digitalisation of trade documentation, starting with the eBL, brings considerable benefits of efficiency, reliability, security, sustainability, and reduced illegal trade.  

The FIT Alliance said: “Achieving widespread adoption of a standards-based eBL will benefit not only the shipping industry, but also the global movement of goods, at a time when supply chain resilience is challenged.” 

To date, more than 100 organisations have signed the declaration comprising ocean container carriers, cargo owners/shippers, banks and financial institutions, freight forwarders, solution providers and ports and terminals.  Daniel Lit, Group Head of Documentary Trade, Global Transaction Services at DBS Bank, said: “Now more than ever, interoperability and common standards are crucial to prevent digital islands from forming while lowering the barriers of entry to create a network effect. We are proud to participate in the eBL declaration alongside like-minded partners to help push a more seamless and effective trade ecosystem across the line.” 

Raising awareness at key industry events 

FIT Alliance members participated in industry conferences and panels in 2023 to promote eBL adoption and digital trade. Events included TPM, Sibos, ICC World Chambers Congress, FIATA World Congress, GTR Singapore, and a panel at the WTO’s informal working group on micro, small and medium-sized enterprises.  

FIATA hosted five international/regional workshops to promote the digitalisation of transport documents, including the FIATA eFBL standard. FIATA’s participation in the ICC World Chambers Congress in June saw the FIT Alliance eBL Declaration promoted for the first time publicly. 

A panel discussion titled, Sailing towards Interoperability: the Digital Transformation of Global Trade was held at Sibos where the topics discussed centred around how we can promote trade digitalisation and how the industry and stakeholders can readily adopt and use eBLs.  A packed venue hosted around 100 attendees from global trade banks, fintech companies and software providers, with more participants online. Interest in the topic was high as the panel invited discussion on the starting point for the eBL, what stakeholders such as banks should look for from digital platforms and standards, and what challenges they might face. 

Panel participants emphasised that the time to act is now; there was a clear sense of urgency around digitalisation, interoperable systems and adoption of standards to ease connectivity and transmission of data. 

eBL pilots 

DCSA started the industry conversation on eBL platform interoperability in 2021 and continues to lead that quest with external stakeholders, as well as with FIT Alliance partner Swift. In 2023, DCSA ran two interoperability pilots with a majority of eBL platform providers, banks and ExxonMobil. Additionally, DCSA has concluded with all eBL solution providers and its member carriers how to enable control tracking for cross-platform transfers, thereby supporting the MLETR requirements. 

Swift began working with FIT Alliance partners and eBL providers to develop an interoperability model. The resulting solution includes an API layer which connects ecosystem partners, using Swift as a central connector, and without requiring point-to-point integration with every other platform. This has the potential to reduce costs, improve efficiency and empower the community with a standardised API solution that will support front-end innovation and expanded reach.  

FIATA collaborated with Arab Bank, CargoX and edoxOnline on a proof-of-concept for the transfer of a digital FBL (FIATA bill of lading) between two customers of the bank, using different eBL platforms, with the bank as an intermediary. This pilot demonstrated the feasibility of fully automated smart contracts involving an automatic payment of the bank based on the FIATA eFBL solution.  

The Complete Guides to eBL 

The FIT Alliance launched the Complete Guides to eBL for bulk trades and the container industry to help members in these industries to start preparing for the adoption of eBL.  

The guides explain what an eBL is, the key benefits of eBL, the current state of eBL adoption and how adopters can get started. They also cover what interoperability is and developments in interoperability. 

FIT Alliance survey reveals eBL opportunities and challenges 

January saw the release of results from the FIT Alliance’s 2022 survey of its members, designed to gauge awareness and use of eBLs, as well as factors that hinder adoption.  

At that time, 94% of respondents had heard at least a little about eBLs, and 28% already used them in conjunction with paper. Fortunately, a majority (58%) of those using only paper B/Ls reported that their organisations have plans to use eBLs in the future. 

To increase eBL use, the industry must address key factors that hinder adoption – these were also identified in the survey, starting with the top reasons which could be grouped as technology, platform or interoperability concerns, cited by almost three-quarters (73%) of respondents. Whilst the concerns pointed to different factors, such as the need for more education about the security and technology aspects, platform choices or costs, they illustrated that organisations are hesitant to move forward because they do not want to “choose wrong” on eBL solutions. 

A majority (63%) of the survey’s respondents cited lack of stakeholder readiness, making this the second most cited reason, followed by legal gaps, selected by 55% of survey respondents. 

eBLs are an important part of the journey towards maritime digitalisation. Following the survey, the FIT Alliance engaged with industry stakeholders and planned subsequent industry panels, promotional campaigns and pilots/proof-of-concept trials with the identified opportunities and challenges in mind.  

What’s in store in 2024? 

In 2024, the FIT Alliance will continue the eBL movement with stakeholders in all industries, engaging organisations to adopt eBLs and to bring in their trade partners.  

DCSA will continue to support its member carriers in their 100% eBL journey while engaging other key industry stakeholders to adopt eBL. Additionally, DCSA will continue leading the journey towards eBL platform interoperability – a must to scale adoption.  

BIMCO will maintain its engagement with companies in the bulk industries, whilst ICC plans to leverage its global network to create local champions and advocates to galvanise local business communities. 

FIATA will work to expand the implementation of the FIATA eFBL standard and electronic documentation in over 100 countries where FIATA is represented, and assist its representative bodies and their member companies in these territories in the transition to electronic documents, including the use of the eFBL. FIATA will also continue its work to extend the implementation of the eFBL to all relevant software platforms and Transport Management Systems (TMS) around the world.  

The FIT Alliance Complete Guides to eBL will be supplemented with a section from Swift for the financial sector, one from FIATA for the freight forwarding industry, and a section on eBL legal reform.    

Realising universal eBL requires collaboration between all industry stakeholders. A clear commitment to digitalisation is needed from everyone involved in international trade. The FIT Alliance calls on all stakeholders to publicly signal their readiness for change and their commitment to collaborate to drive digitalisation, starting with eBLs, within their industries. 

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