Several international trade finance lenders have pledged to help drive adoption of electronic bills of lading (eBLs), following a call to action from shipping associations, Swift and the International Chamber of Commerce. 

Replacing physical BLs with electronic equivalents could boost global containerised trade by US$40bn a year, says the Future International Trade (FIT) Alliance, whose members also include the Digital Container Shipping Association (DCSA), the International Federation of Freight Forwarders (Fiata) Associations and the Baltic and International Maritime Council (Bimco). 

Usage remains low – just 2.1% of BLs and waybills were issued electronically last year for containerised trade transactions – but the alliance says technological and legislative developments represent a major step forward in removing barriers to adoption. 

The alliance is today urging companies to realise this opportunity by signing up to standards produced by its members, starting using existing eBL solutions, and encouraging further uptake among trade partners. 

“Now that many of the technical and legal obstacles to universal eBL are being addressed, what’s needed is a clear commitment to digitalisation from everyone involved in international trade,” the alliance says in its call to action. 

“By signing this FIT Alliance eBL declaration, all stakeholders in international trade can publicly signal their readiness for change and their commitment to collaborate to drive digitalisation, starting with eBLs, within their industries.” 

The declaration also calls for stakeholders to provide feedback on standards and support further development, as well as participate in workshops, surveys and pilots carried out by alliance members. 

Numerous influential industry participants have already thrown their weight behind the statement. 

As of press time, bank signatories are Commerzbank, CTBC Bank, DBS Bank, ING Bank, HSBC and Rabobank. The declaration is also backed by numerous technology, shipping and logistics companies, as well as metals giant Tata Steel and chemicals producer Ineos Styrolution.

FIT Alliance members have long advocated for industry-wide standardisation around electronic trade documents. 

As well as making trade more efficient and resilient, it says that moving away from paper would reduce inventory and financing costs, unlock new business models, save tens of thousands of trees and cut carbon emissions. 

The DCSA, Bimco and Fiata have each unveiled standards for their corners of the industry – container shipping, bulk and multimodal transport respectively – covering data standards, form fields and processes. 

The alliance says it is now seeking “a clear commitment to digitalisation from everyone involved in international trade”, emphasising the importance of collaboration. 

“To achieve widespread use of eBL, we must all be on board with adopting digital BL standards,” says Niels Nuyens, DCSA’s head of digital trade. 

“This agreement from our diverse industry associations is an exciting milestone in our journey towards standardising all container shipping documentation through our shared initiative.”  

Daniel Lit, group head of documentary trade, global transaction services at DBS Bank, adds: “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.” 

Venkatraman Panchapakesan, global head of trade services for HSBC’s global trade and receivables finance business, says “industry collaboration is critical to make paperless trade a reality”, with eBLs a “focal point” for digitisation. 

So far, the FIT Alliance says there are “encouraging signs” that uptake is growing. For example, it notes that four of the world’s largest mining companies are now carrying around 20% of iron ore shipments using eBLs. 

Jayanta Banerjee, chief information officer at Tata Steel, says the company is “already making visible progress in integrating data-driven insights, automation, and smart solutions to enhance operational efficiency, optimise processes, and create value for all stakeholders”.  

“Embracing universal eBL stands as a bold testament to our vision for an agile, responsive, and resilient steel supply chain of the future,” he says. 

As of September 5, signatories from the technology space are Bolero, Cargowise, CargoSoft, CargoX, Contour, edoxOnline, the Global Shipping Business Network, ICE Digital Trade, IQAX, Secro, TradeGo, TradeWaltz and WaveBL. 

Singapore digital data platform SGTraDex has also joined, along with the Global Legal Entity Identifier Foundation. 

Shipping and logistics participants are DHL, Evergreen Line, Hapag-Lloyd, HMM, Maersk, MSC, Yang Ming and ZIM, as well as industry associations from Canada, Chile, India, Poland, Portugal, Turkey, Vietnam and the UK.