The global fashion and textile market has increasingly been influenced by green buzzwords such as 'organic', 'fair trade' and 'sustainable', with the market for ethical and environmentally-friendly fashion growing despite many challenges.

Assessing the size of this sub-sector is a tricky business, given there is no international standard about what is green and what is not green. But it is safe to assume that sustainable or environmental textile and clothing production and sales are growing robustly, albeit from a small base.

According to a 2009 study by the Mintel International research group, the UK ethical textiles market has quadrupled since 2004, with a 2009 value estimated at GBP175m. But that is still a small amount - less than 1% of the market - reflecting the inherent challenges required to produce sustainable clothing.

Later this year, a clearer picture may emerge of the size of this market across Europe, and also in North America and Asia, when the US-based Textile Exchange releases the results of a major survey. The data will be released late spring, and includes input from major international brands about the scale of their cellulosic, organic and recycled materials use.

Member services manager Daren Abney would not predict a percentage proportion of the market now secured by green and sustainable textiles, but says: "There's a lot of growth. Some people have said sustainability is not an option, it is a necessity. The pollution from companies in the textile and clothing sector is greater than other industries. This is not a fad."

He points to the growth in organic cotton (his organisation used to be called the Organic Exchange, when it focused on organic inputs). For the 2009/10 growing season 1.1% of global cotton production was organic (largely in India), up from 0.9% the previous year.

That said, the sustainable textile market is still volatile. According to the US and Canada-based Organic Trade Association (OTA), the overall organic cotton acreage in the US is 15% lower than in the year 2000, and 52% below the highest level of organic cotton growth in 1995, which totalled 24,625 acres.

The OTA indicated in its 2009 organic cotton survey that US farmers were suffering from low demand, low prices and increased international competition for organic cotton. So although organic cotton production in the US has grown every year since 2003, the industry is by no means booming.

Added set of challenges
Sustainable textiles and clothing have "got an added set of challenges, there will be extra criteria that business needs to meet," explains Alex Smith, an ethical fashion consultant and founder of Considered Style consultancy in the UK.

And this can take outside expertise and knowledge if a company is unsure about how to make a sustainable product that stands up to a rigorous assessment of any green marketing. Not only could this be costly in itself, but sustainable production brings its own inherent costs - especially if a company wants to defend itself against allegations of using cheap labour overseas.

Smith says costs depend on what aspect of ethical or sustainable production a company focuses on. If it wants to focus on ethical labour standards in developing or emerging market countries producing its fibres and fabrics, it needs to be prepared to pay higher wages.

On the other hand, if a rich country company wants to make garments close to home and argue production avoided environmentally-damaging cargo emissions - in the UK, for example - labour costs could be astronomically high compared to a cheap labour region.

"However, there may be further savings higher up the supply chain that may offset that. It just depends on the set-up," she adds, noting that reducing water, energy and transport costs can often offset the price of sustainability.

"If you're selling the features of what you're doing and the product is desirable, the business can be built so that you can do that, and still achieve a similar structure as other businesses that are not specifically ethical or sustainable."

Consumers willing to pay more?
Indeed, some consumer reports indicate that consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable textiles made from fibre inputs such as organic cotton.

The Paris-based Institut Français de la Mode conducted a survey of 1,000 French consumers in October 2009, finding that 49% of respondents think raising a product's price to offset the cost of making it more sustainable is justifiable. 21% even felt that justification was "obvious".

But consumers are also becoming more wary of 'green-washing', raising concerns about companies calling any product green.

"There are so many labels, there are so many things, that you can over-label things. So it's really about what that label is telling that consumer, and boiling it down to what is the product's benefit," says Smith, noting that many consumers are very aware of terms such as organic, fair trade and recycled and will recognise them on a label.

"Consumers are used to the word organic, but it has to be clear what's actually organic about the product. It's an incentive, so it's got to be really clear, really simple."

Smith says companies who have incorporated sustainable elements into their products have to communicate their message in a way that consumers will understand. They also have to find the right balance between the cost of making their sustainable or ethical fashion product, the demand for the product, and what their target market is willing to pay.

"It's got to be something that's different and offers quality and value. There are plenty of businesses out there that can offer an element of sustainability, and it really depends on how they sell that story and if it's worth it for the money.

"It's telling a story about people and the environment and what the product gives back. It has to speak to the right people at the right price and with the right message," Smith explains.

According to the Institut Français de la Mode survey, only 18% of French consumers trust hypermarkets and supermarkets to sell truly sustainable clothing, while 49% of consumers would wholly trust a specialised "ethical" store. Only 5% of respondents trusted the Internet to deliver true green goods.

Ethical fashion buying habits
Ilaria Pasquinelli at the Ethical Fashion Forum in the UK says very little market research has been done to map consumers' ethical fashion buying habits.

The small amount that has been completed, however, shows that making an environmentally-friendly purchase is generally not a top priority for consumers when they're in a shop, but when asked directly they want brands to act responsibly.

"As far as we know, [ethical production] is considered a plus, but it is not the main reason why people buy ethical clothes. Size, fit, price - many other factors can affect a consumer's decision," Pasquinelli says.

However, she notes an interesting reverse phenomenon when a company is discovered to practise very unethical production or labour methods. "If a consumer knows that a brand produces something unethically, they will refuse to buy it, they will boycott it."

Pasquinelli adds that the sustainable fashion market can only get stronger, with many high street retailers such as Sweden's Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) and the UK-based Marks & Spencer learning what small niche businesses and designers first recognised: that there is a market for eco-friendly products, and that it can be a good business investment.

"The communication about what sustainability is has become clearer and more present. It's a cycle. As consumers are more aware, high-street retailers are more willing to invest in sustainability, and as they do so more consumers will become more aware," she explains.

Pasquinelli adds that companies, sooner or later, will have to become more sustainable anyway. "Sometimes I think it's not a choice, you have to do it. You have to account for the communities, the planet and the people around you."

By Emma Jackson.