24/04/2012 13:16 BST | Updated 24/06/2012 06:12 BST

Partnerships or People Power - Which is the Best Route to Social Change?

How is it best to bring about social change? Working in partnership from the inside, or taking direct action from the outside? Esther Freeman, ethical fashion campaigner and founder of the Fashion Mob , explores the options.

"It's too aggressive and negative!" said a friend after I gushed about a non-violent direct action I considered to be brilliant.

I wondered whether she was right. Maybe it was better to bring about change through partnership. Maybe direct actions are an outdated hangover from the 70s? Is it time for the old hippies to move on?

There are two main approaches to making big business more ethical: working in partnership on the inside; and working on the outside to apply consumer pressure. Sustainability communications agency, Futerra mainly go for the first approach, helping brands improve their corporate social responsibility. Greenpeace tend to take the second approach, bearing witness and holding governments and companies to account. Many people seem to think it should be one way or the other. But I wonder whether there's a place for both?

Social commitment

Last week H&M launched a new sustainability report along side their Glamour Conscious collection . It's a positive step that has no doubt been influenced by Livia Firth's Green Carpet Challenge and Esthetica at London Fashion Week . But it's naïve to think big media exposés and public pressure haven't played a part.

It is also foolhardy to think that now H&M have moved away from the dark side, they'll stay that way forever. There are plenty of examples of High Street fashion chains making attempts at ethical fashion before quickly giving up. Take Top Shop for example, who worked with People Tree for a while before abandoning the partnership. Allegedly it was "too difficult". Now you'll hear Topshop buyers claim all ethical fashion "ugly". One even told me that complete conversion to organic cotton was impossible because it couldn't be dyed. Both these statements are nonsense.

War on Want say most brands have peaks and troughs in their social and environmental responsibility. One year New Look will look like they're really going for it, the the next it will go downhill again. All it takes is a fall in profits, or a change in CEO for the good work to quickly be undone.

We need each other

We need people power to keep the pressure on big brands, to hold them accountable and make them stick to their promises. But people power can't and rarely does it alone. When activists at, 38 Degrees claimed themselves the saviour of BBC 6 Music it ruffled more than a few feathers on Twitter. Their brashly worded celebratory email seemed to ignored all the hard work going on inside the BBC, behind closed doors and no doubt around water coolers.

And in the case of fashion, people power will never work if the clothes are ugly. Nobody ever bought a dress just because it was ethical. The movement needs good designers and good corporate social responsibility people helping them through the door of major High Street stores. In short, we need each other.

If you want to use people power to help clean up the fashion industry then why not join the Fashion Mob. For more information visit