A Greener Customs Future

Nicolas Collart shares his thoughts
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In this article, International Customs, Compliance and Sustainability Director Nicolas Collart shares his thoughts on sustainable development in the customs industry. Drawing from his 10 years of experience within the industry, Nicolas focuses on the transformative potential, what our collective commitment to the sustainable cause could look like and if our new ways of communicating have potentially hindered our productivity…

From paper-bound to paperless

I believe it is safe to say that the customs industry has always been restricted by paper – or by physical documents of some kind. This has been the only real way of governing customs controls, until now. The power of the internet and the growing digital world have allowed us to create a better way of working.

The main challenge we face in progressing our industry to a more sustainable future, is that we all need to step away from this historical approach together. While customs authorities generally define the rules of engagement for our industry, customs brokers and agents have an important role to play in order to facilitate these processes for our clients and keep the whole movement working smoothly for all parties involved.

As with any revolution done on a large scale, it has not been easy. However, what we are seeing is a positive trend. Authorities and agents alike are not only open to removing the use of physical documents, where possible, but also ambitiously looking towards the future of what we can do with data-driven processes. In a report published in March 2022, the Wise Persons Group also highlighted the need to implement a package of measures to help progress EU Customs towards a greener way of working.

“Customs have an important role to play in helping the EU delivering its Green Deal agenda. It goes without saying that Customs themselves need to contribute via the greening of their own operations. The digitalization of procedures described above will also be an element of this contribution.”

“Customs have an important role to play by ensuring that prohibitions and restrictions related to sustainability are properly implemented on imported products. The tracing of goods for environmental purposes could take advantage of new technologies such as blockchain, which could progressively be made mandatory in European legislation.”
“Reform of the EU Customs Union” March 2022, Page 34

The key thing to take away from these quotes is that Customs has an active role to play in the transition to having a more sustainable world. And when we – as an industry – look at the function as a whole, we understand that there is more we can do than simply remove paper. 

Change led by declarants and authorities together 

Although we are working alongside the customs authorities to implement certain changes within the customs clearance process (for example; The NCTS P5 transition and the introduction of the New EU system Proof of Union Status (PoUS) ), we are exploring additional opportunities to enhance our processes, fostering a more efficient approach. It’s not only about how we prepare and process an import or export declaration, but how we deal with the steps before and after those processes. 

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What we are seeing now is data mapping and EDI connectivity on an industry-wide scale. Everybody understands that working without paper should, in most cases, lead to faster processes with more accurate deliverables. We can be greener by accomplishing more with fewer resources.

At the centre of this change, is the element of compliance. Ensuring that any applied processes continue to safeguard the rules and regulations defined by the customs authorities. This is those authorities must be the frontrunners on changes and the good news is that, across Europe, they are becoming increasingly open to these discussions.


Change is not without its drawbacks 

The customs landscape is not the same as it was 10 years ago. The relationship between authorities and operators has been redefined as the industry works to progress further. One of the bigger changes we have seen has been in communications. Whereas before you could pick up the phone and speak to a local agent based on a port, who you probably knew by name, and have a quick chat to resolve your query, this sort of direct communication is less common now. Instead, we have emails and response times can be much longer depending on your question. Could this small loss in efficiency have caused a bigger impact to the industry?

Well, when you consider the increase in demand on authorities’ resources, it’s clear that they are providing more as they move to an enhanced digital environment. Their resources now provide for more traders, agents, and movements than ever before!

This is why it is important for us as an industry to lead these changes within our own circles. The shift for us with new clients is no longer just “Do we have all the documents we need?”; it now systematically includes an open discussion with the client to understand how we can obtain and share data in an efficient and sustainable way. We look to ask ourselves “How can we make it easier for our clients, the authorities and for our team?

Bringing social responsibility into the process

Of course, digitalisation and sustainability should never replace quality. Robots should not be processing the declarations; our experts should be the ones to do that.

However, it is not only the customs authorities’ resources which have been subject to greater demand over the last decade, but also the need for knowledge. There is only a certain amount of longstanding customs expertise available, and declarants across Europe have needed to step up to not only process more declarations, but also keep some capacity for education as their role changes around them.

It is our responsibility as an industry to protect our people and help them become more efficient so that they can continue to keep trade moving. Our people control the quality and hence it is our role to ensure they are able to focus their expertise where it is most valuable. At Customs Support, the core of our business is to use our expertise and knowledge to validate a declaration and ensure it is of the highest quality, not to simply input the numbers. 

Learning and growing together

The European Union, with its different member states, have often approached the same challenge in different ways with differing timeframes – and the digitalisation of the customs industry is no different. Authorities and brokers throughout the EU have been able to learn and progress faster because they can gather knowledge from each other’s lessons.

A distinct advantage that we have as Customs Support is that we are a Europe-wide company and work with end-to-end customs clearances between the EU and the UK.


Our experts have responded to the differing challenges across Europe and worked at both ends of the chain at once, which allowed us to rigorously evaluate our solutions in a variety of settings. This kind of setup clearly connects to having a sustainable process by making use of one data set for multiple deliverables and leaving any paper use out of the equation.  

It is these environments which allow authorities and companies like ours to push towards greater efficiency and a greener approach when it comes to what we do in our day-to-day processes.

The future is green

It is great to see that the spotlight on sustainability is only getting bigger. 

Trade deals are already beginning to prioritise digitalisation and sustainable ways of doing business, and one of the obvious conclusions is that everyone will eventually need to act, instead of simply observing. Additionally, several new initiatives such as CBAMforming part of the EU Green Deal, are being implemented which are closely tied with the sustainability movement.

My colleagues at Customs Support and I worked hard on compiling data for our first group sustainability review in 2022. On the back of this, we have launched initiatives for some of our less-digital offices to embrace a more paperless operation.

For me, one of the most exciting things about this project is that we are able to get great engagement from within our teams. The environment is a global concern right now, and giving people the freedom to take actions that benefit them and the world around them is something they can get behind.

In fact, giving people the power to make choices and have a voice is something that we encourage at Customs Support. It is an evolving company and industry, and our people do a fantastic job of working together to make things happen quickly and effectively.

We recently introduced a group sustainability policy which among other things includes a Green Ambassador Program, whereby our most sustainably enthusiastic people are leading the changes. There is no sense in us dictating changes from an ivory tower or simply putting all the responsibility on certain individuals – real change is led by those who are passionate about it.

I am positive about how our sustainability efforts are progressing, and I can only hope that our peers in the industry are also finding the same enthusiasm. This is not just about us, and together there is a lot that the industry can accomplish.


Taking a realistic view 

Whilst we can do more as an industry to reduce consumption and work for sustainable growth, we do recognise that there are limits. We are in the middle of the chain, and while we play an important role, we do not hold as much influence on sustainability as our peers in logistics and shipping. 

However, we can focus our energy on two key areas: paper usage and people. Along with reducing paper use where possible, we must balance the demands we place on our experts with their wellbeing and the quality of their output being the top priority. 

We must also consider that there are diminishing returns. The removal of paper does mean an increase in the use of servers, processing units, and electricity consumption. The trade off with paper production, shipping, use, and storage space is something we cannot quantify at this stage, but I believe we can be confident as an industry that we are stepping in the right direction.

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