What will the Bill of Lading look like in the next decade?

The bill of lading (BL) is the single most important document in international shipping.

Yet in a world of emerging technologies like blockchain, AI, robotics, voice-controlled assistants, IoT and autonomous vehicles, it’s incredible to think that the most important document in all international shipping is still a physical paper document.

This paper is couriered by hand across the globe, inspected by some, signed by others, and then given to the recipient, which they then must show in order to collect their goods.

If the document is lost or has any mistakes, the original must be destroyed and a new one issued. This new one is then couriered across the world once more, often arriving well after the goods have arrived.

As a new decade dawns, it’s quite mind-boggling to be so dependent on original paper documents.

Every year, 11 billion metric tonnes of cargo are shipped globally. Approximately 50% of these transactions require an original bill of lading. That’s a lot of paper.

Billions of pages.

Sending paper documents around the globe is not only slow and expensive, it’s unsustainable.

The time has come to move beyond the paper of the past and towards the widespread adoption of digital solutions. The real question is — what’s holding us back (and how can we overcome it)?

If we all agree, why can’t we move forward?

A world with electronic bills of lading (eBL) as the norm would massively reduce the costs of producing, sending, and re-sending documents.

It would save time, improve transmission speed, and enable sellers to get paid faster. Not to mention the environmental benefits of cutting down paper waste and emissions from courier transportation.

The bill of lading for a wine shipment to Thomas Jefferson, dated 25 April 1785.
A sample of a ‘modern day’ bill of lading.

The paper bill of lading is clearly not the best method for the future. So if we all agree, why has so little changed since the 13th Century?

It comes down largely to complexity and the number of stakeholders involved.

The bill of lading goes through many hands. Shippers, carriers, regulators, financial institutions, insurers, customs authorities, and other industry stakeholders — it’s not the most important document in shipping without reason.

With so many stakeholders involved, finding a unified solution is a challenge. Many have tried — the idea of an electronic bill of lading is not new after all — but solutions cannot happen in isolation.

Any eBL solution must work across the entire industry. But that doesn’t mean we need one solution. Rather, we need solutions that are interoperable.

And interoperability begins with standards.

A matter of standards

Standards help us speak the same language. They’re an industry-wide agreement on the definition and formats for communication, not the solution itself. They offer the freedom to innovate while creating a solid foundation for change.

In short, they’re essential for the digitising of documentation in the shipping industry.

The Digital Container Shipping Association (DCSA) recently published standards for the Bill of Lading. Part of the multi-year eDocumentation Initiative, it’s intended to standardise the language and definitions of all shipping documentation — starting with the bill of lading — to aid the transition from paper-based communication to something truly digital and paperless.

We can agree we need to change, but until we agree on some standards for change, we’ll keep moving at a snail’s pace (and killing trees in the process).

I would encourage anyone in the industry to learn more about the standards and see how they can implement eBL solutions in line with these guidelines, as some are already doing. Even for carriers not yet implementing eBL solutions, these standards can still help streamline paper-based BL data and processes.

eBL in practice

eBL products aren’t new. Many have introduced their own eBL products, but without uptake, industry buy-in, and interoperability, their success has been limited.

With any luck, more and more will implement eBL solutions so we can reduce waste, cut courier and administrative costs, and provide a more efficient process befitting the day and age we live in.

MSC is now offering an eBL solution via a third-party blockchain secured platform, available for customers worldwide.

Mirroring the traditional paper-based workflow, it provides a faster, more secure digital alternative to print documents, while ensuring all parties can issue, transfer, endorse and manage bills of lading in a few clicks and within minutes.

So as we race toward light at the end of COVID-19 tunnel, our shipping industry still has to deal with the challenges posed by the global pandemic. The eBL addresses an immediate need — enabling shippers to overcome border restrictions and interruptions in postal services, and creates the possibility for employees to work remotely.

It’s been truly inspiring to see your ongoing support on this mission of digitalisation. Let me know your thoughts on what the future holds for the Bill of Lading.

Husband, father, bass player, shoeaholic. CDIO at @MSCCargo and chairman of DCSA. I mostly tweet about the digitalisation of container shipping!