How is international trade evolving?

Despite all the disruption caused by Covid, the Ukraine war and ongoing tensions between China and the US, progress towards digitalised international trade has continued apace. So, how do the UK’s efforts compare?

International trade has been going digital for some time, such that paperless customs processes and highly interconnected transactions are now more widely implemented than ever before. 

In fact, the overall implementation rate of digital trade facilitation measures has increased by more than six percentage points between 2021 and 2023, and now stands at a global average of 68.7%, according to a new UN survey.

However, that figure masks a significant level of variance in different countries’ progress towards the digitalisation of international trade. For instance, the highest implementation rate is seen in developed economies (85.3%), followed by countries in South-East and East Asia (76.6%). The Pacific Islands have the lowest implementation rate (42.3%).


As the map shows, the global implementation of fully paperless trade is still some way off. 

The variance, however, cannot be explained by wealth alone, as some less economically developed countries have forged ahead; see, for instance, Mozambique, which has achieved 96.3% paperless trade, despite being one of the poorest nations in the world. 

Britain’s implementation level, by comparison, stands at 88.9%.

Taking a closer look at the UK’s own journey towards fully paperless trade, it’s clear that the work done to implement Brexit-related changes to trading practices has helped to push Britain towards digital systems. 

There is obviously still work to be done here though, as Britain lags behind some other economically developed nations – including the likes of Sweden, Singapore and Japan – when it comes to the adoption of digital trading processes.

Here, we can see that the UK is generally ahead of the rest of the world – and often our EU neighbours too – when it comes to embedding digital customs processes. 

However, this also highlights some areas for future development, such as the creation of an electronic single window system, or a means of submitting sea cargo manifests digitally. If the UK government is serious about unlocking more international trade post-Brexit, these will surely have to be priorities.