In the green clothing and textiles market, the requirement to create sustainable and marketable eco-friendly products is becoming increasingly competitive. Out-of-the-box innovation is immensely valuable in such a sector where companies seek to balance environmental marketing against increased costs - if green production can be achieved for lower costs, then major labels can and do take notice.

The Austria-based Lenzing Group, for example, is an award-winning eco-textile manufacturer responsible for creating Tencel, a sustainable fibre made from cellulosic wood pulp.

Last month, the company unveiled an addition to its Tencel line, called Tencel C that combines sustainable wood pulp with a vitamin-rich biopolymer found in the shells of seafood such as lobster and crab, namely chitosan.

It has the ability to prevent and alleviate infections, store moisture, and bind proteins and fats, according to the company. It is also fully biodegradable, and the shells that are currently tossed away at seafood restaurants and processing plants can be put to use in this new fabric, the company says, noting that the use of chitosan could foster soft skin and cell regeneration in consumers.

Lenzing's innovation was revealed at the Expofil 2011 trade fair in Paris. It is working with fellow Austrian Huber Bodywear and the Spanish denim producer Tejidos Royo, who are incorporating the fibres into their products. Tejidos Royo has already announced it will use Tencel C in its new denim line Neo Nature.

Meanwhile, the Lenzing Group also won a sustainability award at the International Trade Fair for Sports Equipment and Fashion (ISPO), staged in Munich, early February for its biodegradable and fully botanic sportswear with built-in sunscreen, which is meant to replace polyester sports apparel using synthesised bio-chemicals and finishes to provide sun protection.

Lenzing's Tencel Sun fibre uses the natural solar blocking power of its cellulosic wood pulp with mineral-based pigments to provide solar protection instead of artificial chemicals, which the company claims is more effective than synthesised protection anyway.

"One unique function is the swelling of the fibre which enables clothing made with Tencel Sun to scarcely lose its sun protection during outdoor sporting activities. Conventional fabrics can lose up to 50% of their sun protection when they become damp and stretched," a company communiqué explained.

Recycled plastic water bottles
Major retail brands can be innovative too. Sweden's Hennes & Mauritz's (H&M) spring 2010 line includes fabrics made from polyester processed from waste PET bottles or textile waste, (plus organically grown cotton and linen, and also Tencel fabrics too). Interestingly, H&M has integrated these green assets in design and marketing.

Ann-Sofie Johansson, head of design at H&M stresses that the spring line includes a women's collection of floral and feminine fashion made from sustainable materials. "We are extremely proud of our Garden Collection for women, which has organic and recycled materials in every single garment," she says.

Ironically, plastic water bottles - branded as evil by many environmentalists - seem to be a popular sustainable choice for many textile producers. US-based Unifi Inc recycles water bottles and post-industrial waste into yarns, filament nylons and "performance fibres" that offer functions such as flame retardation or moisture wicking.

At the 2010 Intertextile Shanghai Apparel Fabrics Show in October, Unifi's Shanghai unit introduced the company's newest product, the 100% recycled fully drawn yarn, which can be used for woven textiles and specialty knit production, according to the company.

Unifi also announced in February it is investing into its supply chain to create a new recycling plant for water bottles, fabric scraps and other post-industrial recyclable waste, which will create better quality fabrics as well as reduce its overall production waste.

In Italy, yarn and filament manufacturer Filature Miroglio has announced it aims to stop using virgin PET in its yarn by 2015, instead using recycled PET made from plastic water bottles as part of its Newlife line.

Meanwhile, the Cintas Corporation, a US-based company that specialises in making uniforms for a variety of trades and industries, is offering an entire line of 'EcoGeneration' uniforms, active-wear and business clothing made from fabrics generated from recycled plastic water bottles blended with wool.

As well as reducing its reliance on new petroleum for its polyesters, Cintas's ecofabrics are also machine washable, which means they don't need to go to the drycleaners like other suits and uniforms - helping the consumer reduce their use of heavy chemicals, too, the company says.

Adding more sustainable elements
Levi Strauss's approach is less about adding more sustainable elements than reducing its unsustainable practices. The company's line of 'WaterLess' jeans hit US stores for the first time in January 2011, after the company developed a new method of producing more than a dozen lines of its famous jeans - including the well-known '501 line' - using a fraction of the water in an effort to make its globally recognised products more environmentally friendly.

"We feel strongly that we cannot not ask our suppliers and consumers to change their behaviour unless we are also evolving our own processes, so we challenged ourselves to 'walk the walk' and find a way to make our manufacturing more sustainable," explains Amy Leonard, senior vice president of Levi's product management.

"As part of our ongoing commitment to environmental sustainability, we are pushing for pioneering strategies on protecting clean water as a natural resource and focusing on reducing our overall water consumption - from the fields where cotton is grown to our supplier laundries and even once our consumers take our products home. Our new Levi's Water-Less jeans are just one aspect of a comprehensive commitment to water strategy."

Leonard says Levi's will roll out the WaterLess jeans in Europe in the spring, and will add more and more Levi's products to its WaterLess roster until all of its products have reduced their water consumption permanently.

"Our long-term vision is that all of our products use less water and the industry joins us in these efforts to reduce water use. This is just the beginning, as we start to educate our suppliers and apply this thinking across other parts of our business," Leonard explains.

Meanwhile, the Switzerland-based Better Cotton Initiative was inspired by Levi's cradle-to-grave study of the impact of a pair of jeans in 2007, which tracked water, chemical, energy and carbon usage from cotton production to the day the jeans are thrown out.

The initiative now boasts many brand-name members, including Adidas, Marks & Spencer and Ikea, who are all working together to reduce chemical and water use in cotton production, while improving the soil health of cotton fields.

By Emma Jackson.