Green-friendly fabrics may be expensive, but increasing consumer demand for the environmentally-correct now is forcing Asia's textile giants to go the extra mile to produce clean cloth.
In a sign of the times, at Paris' twice-yearly Texworld textile trade fair this week, around 60 of the 660 firms exhibiting from around the world flew the green flag, a sharp increase on previous sessions, organisers said.
In China, Bangladesh and India, the world's top textile producers, as well as in Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan, natural fibres, organic yarns, fair trade practices and clean processing are creeping into an industry often chided for polluting soils, wasting water and employing child labour.
"We will be starting organic and fair trade by next year," said Sajedur Rahman Talukder, a marketing manager for Bangladesh's biggest textile-maker, Norman Group of Industries, whose tens of thousands of workers supply western firms such as Ikea.
"It is a market demand."
Eco-friendly fabrics, added South Korean firm Ludia, might currently be a niche product around 15 percent more expensive than run-of-the-mill textile, "but in two or three years the consumers will pay the difference."
"Eco-friendly is our key item, the market has changed," said a company manager.
2009 is being branded UN "International Year of Natural Fibres" to give a shot in the arm to the 40-billion-euro global annual business in cotton, linen, sisal, hemp, alpaca, jute, wool, angora, cashmere, and the like ... much of it grown by small farmers in poor nations.
"Some 30 million tonnes of natural fibres are produced annually," 25 million of them cotton, the UN's food and agricultural agency FAO said last month. "Since the 1960s, the use of synthetic fibres has increased and natural fibres have lost a lot of their market share."
But 15 years ago, Chinese entrepreneur H.L. Ding already had his sights set on homegrown hemp, a 4,000-year-old fibre used in sails for old ships that he describes as the "fabric of the future."
Strong, resistant, in need of little water or care, and no fertilisers, "it is a very special plant, the strongest of the natural fibres, even better than linen."
Five years ago, said the head of Hemp Fortex, based in Qingdao with a design studio in Seattle in the United States, almost nobody had heard of hemp. Now Nike uses the breathable, anti-bacteria, anti-UV fabric for its shoes.
"We believe organic cotton and hemp will be the main direction in the future," said Ding, whose turnover has grown from 400,000 to 10 million dollars a year selling to Walmart stores and labels such as Banana Republic and Patagonia.
Taiwan's Chia Her, a 30-year-old textile-maker, said it turned to eco-friendly textiles three years ago "because it was popular in Europe." Sales of green fabrics since have grown 100-fold.
India's Vardhman Fabrics, a firm founded 40 years ago that says it is the country's top yarn producer, also tip-toed down the green path four years ago "because everyone's asking for eco-friendly to save nature from global warming."
But going green is no easy business. And the first hurdle is winning the right to tag products as being environmentally-correct.
A guide to eco-textile labelling published by the organisers of the Texworld fair lists around 30 eco labels variously issued in Japan, Europe and the US, that all set standards for organic textiles and yarns as well as environmental and fair trade certifications.
"It's very expensive and very difficult to get the certifications," said Syed Adeel Haider, deputy marketing manager for Pakistan firm US Denim Mills, one of the big players on the jeans front, supplying to Levi's and Esprit.
Bringing in consultants, ensuring supplies such as yarns and chemicals met all the right standards, and re-adapting the manufacturing process called for sizeable investment, he said.
"We don't want to harm the environment, the soil or the crops, which are a livelihood for our people," he said. "So being green-friendly is a social attitude, but it's also business.
"Organic materials are in high demand and stores such as Marks and Spencers for example won't buy anything unless we're clean from the environmental point of view."
Two years ago, he said, when the firm began offering green-friendly products, there was no interest. "Now we have enquiries every day."
Even in China, world textile leader with a workforce of 20 million and turnover last year at 400 billion euros, green fabrics are gaining a toe-hold.
"China is receiving increasing orders for eco-friendly textiles, with European customers handing you a thick book like a dictionary with standards and certifications, from the raw material to the finished product," said Yan York, the Chinese representative for Texworld.
"And in China too wealthy people are demanding green," he added. "They want trendy and fashionable clothes that also respect the environment."