The past year brought unprecedented challenges – and opportunities – for businesses engaged in global trade.  While COVID-19 lockdowns interrupted supply chains, it also super-charged international e-commerce. Beyond the pandemic, 2020 was also marked by trade disputes between the U.S. and China, the implementation of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), and continuing tariffs imposed on goods imported from the European Union (EU).

What will 2021 bring for international trade? With a new administration, the pandemic surging again around the world, the eventual distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines and more, expect new uncertainties, ongoing challenges, and wealth of potential.

Let’s take a closer look:
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  • Environmental Goods and Services: The next several years will likely see growth in the environmental goods and services sector, with new priorities under the Biden administration translating into opportunities for sustainable products and processes.  It is widely expected that the U.S. will re-join the Paris Climate Agreement, and that the issue of sustainability will take center stage for companies in terms of what they purchase, what they sell, and how they operate.  In other words, global trade in sustainable products should increase, but organizations will also look more closely at how their goods move around the world.  Logistics organizations will have a key role to play in developing and strengthening green supply chains, and in helping customers improve their own sustainable bottom line.
  • Cold Storage: 2021 will also see a global focus on the challenge of cold storage and cold supply chain transportation.  That is because the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, one of the main U.S.-developed vaccines, requires maintenance at the extremely cold temperature of -70°C (although that requirement might change slightly in the months ahead). Other vaccines such as those from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson will also demand some element of cold storage, and all vaccines may have access challenges in certain countries, such as many African nations, that do not have the facilities in place.  The difficulty of last mile cold transportation will be a central area of consideration in the year ahead, and the outcome of these issues may affect how cold products of all kinds are shipped and stored well into the future.
  • High E-Commerce and PPE Demand: Finally, as the pandemic continues and cases surge, the demand for PPE will remain high.  Expect medical supplies to be in top demand internationally for months to come, a fact that will impact how supply chains are managed and how shipping is prioritized on a global scale.  In fact, logistics organizations will face tremendous challenges in the year head, balancing the need to deliver PPE, vaccines, and a growing amount of goods ordered online.  Consider that the pandemic has accelerated an already growing worldwide shift to digital commerce and delivery, and then add to the mix the demand for medical treatment and protection equipment, and you get a sense of the robust shipping volumes in the year ahead.  Companies with international transportation experience, high-volume shipping expertise, and an ability to hire quickly will help businesses across sectors navigate the obstacles to come.


  • Gradual Policy Shifts: Although President-elect Biden has indicated that trade negotiations are a lower priority compared to domestic priorities, he clearly has a more multi-lateral approach to trade.  His team has promised broadly to work with other nations to develop trade rules, and to veer from past “punitive” approaches.  More tactically, we expect President-elect Biden to review existing trade deals for areas of inclusion or improvement, such as the U.S. joining deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) or the rival Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)as well as review the implementation of existing deals such as the USMCA.   Given that Mexico and Canada will remain important trading partners in 2021, USMCA and the implementation of key customs provisions will need ongoing attention, including Mexico’s controversial 17% duty on goods coming into the country.
  • Changes to De Minimis Threshold: The de minimis level – the threshold below which goods coming into the country are subject to duties and tariffs – is under attack around the world.  The European Union is moving away from traditional de minimis to a hybrid model similar to Australia, where a retailer collects taxes and duties on lower value goods at the point of sale. The Trump Administration could escalate the challenges for de minimis by expanding the U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods to include low-value de minimis shipments, even before the Biden Administration is sworn in. This could substantially increase costs for imports from China and potentially other countries as well, especially having an impact on U.S. e-commerce companies that re-sell lower value goods imported from China.  Ultimately, it will take time for the Biden administration to implement changes to trade policies, and we will be watching closely to see if 2021 marks the end of de minimis globally.
  • Brexit: On December 31, 2020, Brexit’s transition period will end, and the UK will formally leave the EU Single Market and Customs Union to implement its own independent trade policy.  At this time, the UK has signed new, individual trade deals with about 20 of the countries that were covered under agreements signed by the EU, but it is still negotiating a trade agreement with the EU itself, along with other nations.  Importantly, the UK is pursuing a direct trade agreement with Kenya, which is part of the East African Community (EAC) trade bloc.  This effort has created tension among East African nations, but also highlights the importance of trade with Africa in the years ahead. In fact, the U.S. is also pursuing a trade deal with Kenya in order to ensure that U.S. companies can be competitive in the region.

What is your company’s 2021 focus and how will you be impacted by these expected international trade developments? Let us know on Twitter @DHLUS.

Serious about going global? Your brand can reach 220 countries. Get started today.