The benefits of greater digitalisation are well known to the readers of this paper. Trading efficiency, security, and cost. As the carriers of goods internationally, shipowners recognise such benefits. But shipowners, due to their international experience are fully aware of the challenges. The most difficult being standardisation of the systems.

Bills of Lading symbolise the contractual relationship between the seller of a good, the entity charged with its carriage, and its buyer. The shipowner has a contractual relationship with the entity paying for the carriage of the good, as well as another. Law has developed to provide all entities in this contract, a degree of confidence in how they will be treated if a problem occurs in the execution of that shipment. However, the confidence within those actors is derived from a paper document which acts as a record of the transfer of ownership and all related contractual rights. The good work of ICC with the Law Society will hopefully mean that such confidence can soon be derived from electronic bills of lading. But adoption is not simply dependent on legal certainty. The next challenge will be establishing international trading confidence in the systems which are supported by that legal certainty. To understand this challenge a consideration of bills of lading, for example in the grain trade, can be useful.

More than two hundred million tonnes of grain were carried by sea in 2020. Almost 90% is managed by the four trading companies. While the 200 Mt+ may have been carried in a combination of vessels within a fleet of 7800 vessels. This fleet is controlled by 1900 different shipowners with an average of just over 4 ships per owner and the largest owner owning 193, a mere 2.5% of the fleet. These numbers highlight the challenge. On the cargo side, there is a relatively consolidated stakeholder audience, on the shipowning side, there is not. If there are fewer stakeholders, it is an easier proposition to achieve standardisation and adoption. But for a successful promotion of E-Bills, the confidence in such systems have to be instilled in all stakeholders.

Comparing the grain trade with goods moved by container vessel, the challenge is reversed. The concentration of the container sector serving the many traders who ship unitised goods, means that ensuring such traders are confident in such systems is required. In both dynamics, the challenge is still the same, establishing commonality of trust and promoting horizontal and vertical adoption. So how to achieve this?

As referenced, the work of the ICC is the first step. Developing alliances between shipowners is one way to accelerate takeup, an option possible in other cargo/vessel types such as car carriers, energy products, and other specialised goods. However, such an approach risks a splintering in the efforts to standardise systems which is important in establishing the user confidence. To counter this, raising greater awareness through multi-lateral shipowning forums with the collaboration of cargo interests would be an effective way of ensuring the most stakeholders can be confident in adopting new E-Bill systems sooner.

The UK Chamber of Shipping, which represents approximately 200 shipowners, will continue to work with the ICC in developing the structures that can advance the digitisation of trade and boost the global economy.

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