It's a rare designer who creates a clothing line without planning to bring it to store shelves. But that's Ma Ke for you. The multi-award-winning mainlander has has been working on Wu Yong, her eco-fashion line, for the past four years, and presented the first collection at the 2007 Paris Fashion Week to wide acclaim. It has yet to appear in any boutique but Ma is in no hurry. The name Wu Yong, meaning 'useless', is a tongue-in-cheek reference to her passion to create something useful instead of producing material that damages the planet in the process. Working from a studio in Zhuhai, Ma and her team of 20 make the outfits the way artisans did in times gone by. They raise their own silkworms for yarn, experiment with natural dyes using fallen leaves and weave cotton on 100-year-old looms. Reconciling eco-ethics with the fashion business is a hard sell when being green usually means higher costs. But while many merely pay lip service to green ideals, a handful of pioneers are working hard to give real meaning to eco-fashion. Hong Kong-based sweater designer Amy Small became an advocate of environmentally friendly material after a stint working on the mainland, in the manufacturing town of Dongguan, for the Free People label. 'I never knew how wasteful and polluted those factories can be,' says Small, who studied textile and apparel design at Cornell University. 'Someone must do something about it.' Recalling how chemical effluent from a big dye factory was drained directly into the ground next to vegetable farms, she says: 'That was really freaky. They were dumping toxins right next to where their vegetables were growing.' Small quit her mainland job in 2008 and came to Hong Kong to start her own business selling yarn while doing freelancing sweater design on the side. Her subsequent collaborations with various eco-fashion brands, including New York-based Bahar Shahpar, helped put her in contact with suppliers of sustainable fibres such as soya bean yarn, yak fibre and recycled silk. 'Soya bean yarn is really soft and drapey, kind of like silk, whereas the yak fibre I've been using is warm and delicate, between wool and cashmere,' she says. 'They have been very well received among customers.' However, fashion with a conscience requires a bigger investment, and Small says it isn't possible for her to use all organic yarn for her line of sweaters yet. 'It's very expensive to use organic materials - double or even triple the cost [of ordinary yarn]. There's no way I could afford that. No matter what, I need to keep my business alive.' Ramby Tse Wai-ting, too, has found it hard to sustain Clash, her second-floor boutique in Central, simply through eco-fashion. A visit to an exhibition of green chic first sparked her interest while studying fashion in London. 'I thought it'd be boring and outdated and was surprised to find out that eco-fashion can be colourful and with bold designs,' says the 26-year-old designer. 'If I can buy clothes and at the same time help saving the environment, why not do it?' Which is how Tse came to start her boutique last year selling European imports such as organic denims from Monkee Genes and Junky Styling, a London brand which remakes vintage clothing to give it a modern twist. 'It's not good enough for the customers just promoting the clothes as eco-fashion. The designs must be good as well.' 'But Hong Kong people have not been as accepting [of eco-fashion] as I thought,' she says. 'Some customers told me they wouldn't pay such prices for second-hand clothing. There's a long way to go.' A plan to gather 1,000 used garments from customers for redesign - a Junky Styling project of her own - has had to be put on hold because of poor response from local fashionistas. Ma has been able to sustain Wu Yong, however, through her commercial label Exception de Mixmind. Launched in 1996, the line of high-end, minimalist casual wear is distributed in more than 50 outlets on the mainland. Ma spent summers on her grandmother's farm as a child, and once dreamed of becoming a zoologist. While she wound up studying at the Suzhou Institute of Silk Textile Technology, she retained her love for nature, and tried to use sustainable fabrics with Exception, although that wasn't always feasible. Wu Yong is her purist venture. Her favourite moment in the process, she says, is watching colours change as she dyes the cloth. 'The way we make clothes here is the same as how people made clothes 200 years ago,' Ma says. 'I feel as if everything else on earth has disappeared, leaving just me and the colours. It's exhilarating. '[Eco-fashion] is not a profitable business of course, but someone has to do it. I'm only doing this to get others to join me.' People's reluctance to pay more for clothing made with green principles is understandable, says Christina Dean, founder of EcoChic Hong Kong, a non-profit group promoting sustainable practices in the industry. 'Consumers understand more the value of health, and products' impact on their health,' she says. 'When it comes to fashion, there isn't an obvious link. I think they fail to understand that sustainable fashion is not only benefiting themselves but the environment. Organic and fair-trade food and beauty products are ahead of fashion. Fashion is not catching up, but it's starting to change.' Dean's work with environmentally sustainable businesses has brought her in touch with manufacturers and suppliers that have expanded to cater to niche markets, including a number on the mainland. Alkena Textile is among the first mainland manufacturers to tap into the organic textile market. The Sichuan-based company started concentrating on producing organic silk in 1998 to cater to demand from Switzerland, Germany, Britain and the United States. Starting with a silk-production operation near the Sichuan-Shanxi border, Alkena now operates three sites. The operations, which combine mulberry farms, silk mill and garment workshops, have been certified organic since 2003 by the Swiss-based Institute for Marketecology. To help farmers maintain organic practices, the company provides them with bio-pesticides such as chilli sprays and offers each farmer two cows to ensure a supply of manure for composting. Being a big textile maker, 'the mainland could have a key role in developing sustainable fashion if they get it right', says Dean, who regularly attends trade fairs for EcoChic. 'I've seen manufacturers providing organic bamboo textiles and hemp. The problem is that we don't know yet what is right and what the regulations are.' To build consumer confidence, Dean says, it's important to have credible eco-fashion certification which is properly regulated. 'It's been confusing for consumers whether those self-claimed eco-friendly products are worth the money, or the label they are supporting is doing what it says it was.' Despite Alkena's steady growth, manager Chen Xiaoping has mixed feelings about its future. In the past decade, it has become harder to produce organic silk on the mainland because of the shortage of workers they can employ to tend to the mulberry trees and raise silkworms, he says. 'Agriculture in China is still very labour intensive and very few farmers have the time to spare. Moreover, many now leave to work in the cities, which leaves even fewer people who can work for us. 'People care about organic products more because of the health impact; so food and beauty products and children's wear are the first to start [organic lines]. 'The trend has not yet taken off in the fashion industry.' Dean, however, says environmental concerns should be addressed throughout the fashion business. 'Eco-fashion doesn't necessarily have to increase, but mainstream fashion definitely has to become more sustainable,' she says. 'I don't see why there should be such a huge divide between eco-fashion and fashion. 'If people can understand the severe damage to the environment, they will think twice before making a purchase.'