Three shipping industry associations have joined forces with the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and Swift in a new alliance dedicated to standardising digital trade documents.

The Future International Trade (FIT) Alliance brings together the two organisations with the Digital Container Shipping Association (DCSA), the International Federation of Freight Forwarders Associations (Fiata) and the Baltic and International Maritime Council (Bimco) with the aim of creating and agreeing upon definitive standards for the electronic bill of lading (eBL).

The FIT Alliance represents the latest step in global efforts to bring the bill of lading (BL) into the digital age. Arguably the most valuable piece of paper in seaborne trade, the BL has three main functions: it provides evidence of the agreement between the shipper and carrier for the movement of cargo, is a receipt for the goods, and is a document of title to the goods.

While electronic versions of the BL have been made available for some time by various solution providers – among them Bolero, essDocs and Wave – each of these eBLs requires slightly distinct data inputs, which presents efficiency issues. In container shipping, for example, the six biggest companies currently support five different eBL systems and essentially find themselves having to input the same information in a completely different way depending on what system their customers – or their customers’ banks – are using.

To tackle this issue, the DCSA, Bimco and Fiata have each created eBL standards for their own corners of the industry: container shipping, the dry and liquid bulk sectors, and multimodal transport sectors respectively. This work, completed a year ago, saw the three associations work with their own members and stakeholders to agree on form fields, data standards, and processes. Having done this, the next step is to boil down the three resulting sets of standards into one universal set of rules.

“It would have been impossible to start this piece of work by trying to standardise the eBL across the different carriers, bulk shippers and freight forwarders all at once,” DCSA CEO Thomas Bagge tells GTR. “This is an iterative process, and it is all about getting people to agree, which has actually been less challenging than I expected when I first took on this role. There is a lot of willingness to achieve alignment.”

“The digitalisation of documentation for container shipments will add value for international suppliers who rely on shipping across sectors,” says David Loosley, secretary general and CEO of Bimco. “Aligning these standards with the electronic bill of lading standard for the dry and liquid bulk sectors, which we are developing with assistance from DCSA, will help accelerate the digitalisation of trade globally.”

“Interoperability between all actors of the trade and transport industry is the key foundation to enable smooth data exchange and to streamline the end-to-end shipping process for our members,” adds Stephane Graber, director general of Fiata. “Fiata is convinced that an industry-wide effort to establish open-source, interoperable, technology-agnostic standards is essential to make the digitalisation of international trade a reality.”

By bringing in representatives of adjacent sectors in the shape of Swift and the ICC – which has been an active part of eBL standardisation initiatives thus far through its Digital Standards Initiative, the three shipping associations hope that the eventual standard they create will have a better chance of being accepted and adopted by all parties within the trade ecosystem.

“Swift counts over 11,000 banks among its members, and the banks are a critical stakeholder here, especially in the letter of credit process,” says Bagge. “Once we have an eBL and electronic shipping instructions, we’ll also need an electronic letter of credit, electronic booking standards, and electronic certificates of origin, and that is certainly our long-term goal.”

Over the coming months, the FIT Alliance says it will work to generate awareness about the importance of common and interoperable data standards and common legislative conditions across international jurisdictions and platforms, with the aim of carrying out proofs of concept to demonstrate the legal and technical interoperability of the eBL across each area of global trade.