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Explained: How Atacama Desert Became a Dumping Ground For Discarded Fast Fashion

The Atacama Fashion Week, set in the driest desert on earth, was the first of its kind.

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A fashion show featuring models walking in the middle of a hot and arid desert might not seem like an appealing idea. But as far as the Atacama Desert in South America's Chile is concerned, it is an imperative idea.

The Atacama Fashion Week, set in the driest desert on earth, was the first of its kind – not because of the models and the clothes, which were unique enough, but because of the ramp set amidst a pile of discarded clothing.

Atacama Desert has towering piles of clothes dumped on the outskirts of the city of Alto Hospicio. Zara, H&M, Adidas – you name it, it's there. Most brands that can be found in an average person's wardrobe today are common offenders.

Chile, with its duty-free ports incentivising the booming industry of second-hand clothing, has managed to become the third largest importer of second-hand clothes. Although the intention was to resell them after arrival, most of the clothes end up in the landfill.

With Atacama Fashion Week, in April 2024, stylists, designers, and activists hoped to spread awareness and ultimately address and eliminate the larger issue of fast fashion.

Explained: How Atacama Desert Became a Dumping Ground For Discarded Fast Fashion

  1. 1. What is Happening in Atacama Desert? 

    Chile imports a massive 60,000 tonnes of used clothing every year, making it the third largest importer of discarded clothes globally. As per the official website of Atacama Fashion Week, while some of these clothes are sold in second-hand markets, at least 39,000 tonnes are illegally dumped in the Atacama Desert.

    Ángela Astudillo, 27, co-founder of Desierto Vestido, an NGO that aims to raise awareness about the impact of waste, told The Guardian:

    "This place is being used as a global sacrifice zone where waste from different parts of the world arrives and ends up around the municipality of Alto Hospicio." 

    However, to address the vast scale of this problem, which has left local inhabitants devastated, Astudillo partnered with Fashion Revolution Brazil, a fashion activism movement, and Artplan, a Brazilian advertising agency. Together, by holding the fashion show amid the piles of discarded clothing, they aim to raise awareness about the environmental hazard plaguing the desert.

    Especially when, according to a report by Grist, no rain has fallen in Alto Hospicio or the surrounding Atacama Desert region for 14 years. The dry conditions, combined with the nonbiodegradable, synthetic, petroleum-derived fibres of modern clothes, prevented the pile from shrinking. Instead, for over two decades, it has grown with every discarded, imported item added.

    However, as if sprawling mounds of clothes are not bad enough, fires are occasionally set on some of the piles, releasing toxic smoke, in recent years.

    The Atacama Fashion Week, set in the driest desert on earth, was the first of its kind.

    The growing pile of clothing in the Atacama desert. 

    (Photo: Instagram/angeless.ab)

    Maya Ramos, stylist and designer, through the fashion show, intended to highlight the different forms of pollution to raise awareness about the issue.

    She tasked Astudillo and others with collecting clothing from the dumps for the fashion show and later travelled to the Atacama Desert to assemble the outfits, spending 24 hours hand-cutting and stitching the collected clothes.

    The stylist told The Guardian:

    "The problem is more than fashion and the supply chain. It's a societal problem. People, through a lack of connection with nature, are consuming more than they need at an unbridled pace."
    Expand
  2. 2. Why Are Clothes Being Dumped in Atacama Desert?

    Chile boasts one of South America's largest duty-free ports, situated in the coastal city of Iquique on the western edge of the Atacama Desert.

    Duty-free ports boost economic activity by allowing goods to be imported and re-exported without typical taxes and fees. Iquique's duty-free port, established in 1975, aimed to create jobs and revive the local economy.

    Chile became a major importer of used clothes, transforming Iquique by booming its economy. The rise of fast fashion further increased these imports. 

    The Atacama Fashion Week, set in the driest desert on earth, was the first of its kind.

    A still of the pollution in the desert due to fast fashion. 

    (Photo: X/ SafiaManney)

    However, Fernanda Simon, the director of Fashion Revolution Brazil, a fashion activism movement told the The Guardian that there are elements of environmental racism and colonialism starkly present, wherein discarded clothes of the global north are being dumped in the global south.

    In this case, the most vulnerable population is being impacted. Especially in Alto Hospicio, one of the poorest cities in Chile, the locals inhaling gasses when the clothes are being dumped and later incarcerated.

    Expand
  3. 3. Why is It Being Dubbed as a 'Global Sacrifice Zone'?

    A sacrifice zone is where residents are subjected to heightened levels of pollution and hazardous materials, despite the adverse impacts on their health. 

    The desert is called a "global sacrifice zone" because heaps of clothing dumped there pollute the environment whether left in the open or buried, releasing toxins into the air and the underground channels of water, as per National Geographic

    And when the clothes are incarcerated, they also release toxic fumes, damaging the soil, the ozone layer, and the health of the local population.

    Moreover, most of the clothes dumped there are made of synthetic materials that won't biodegrade for 200 years and are as toxic as discarded tyres or plastics, the AFW site acknowledges.

    The sheer scale at which the area has become a dumping ground for the developed countries is a cause for global concern. Especially because between 2000 and 2014, clothing production doubled, and consumers started buying 60 percent more clothes but wearing them for half as long, according to UNESCO.

    The Atacama Fashion Week, set in the driest desert on earth, was the first of its kind.

    Satellite image of the dumping ground in Atacama Desert.  

    (Photo: SkyFi)

    In this case, it is estimated that three-fifths of all clothing ends up in landfills or incinerators within a year of being made. The numbers suggest that Chile is one of many countries in the global south that is facing the brunt of hyper-consumerism. 

    Fernanda Simon, states during the AFW Talks that it's important to look beyond the clothes and look into the makings of it, she says: "When you look at the beautiful landscape of Atacama and then the discarded clothes, which can even be seen from space, it's obvious something is very wrong when talk about fashion and its current level of production."

    Another example, which faces a similar situation, is the city of Accra in Ghana, where towering piles of clothes are present in one part of the city, and on another side, the shoreline has become a dumping ground for a tangled web of clothes as well. 

    The Atacama Fashion Week, set in the driest desert on earth, was the first of its kind.

    Towering piles of clothes in Ghana. 

    (Photo: CBS)

    In India, Panipat has been dubbed as a "cast-off capital", BBC reports. Similar to Chile and Ghana, every day hundreds of tonnes of clothes from global West arrive in the city.

    Expand
  4. 4. Where are the Clothes Coming From?

    The second-hand and unsold clothing, made in China or Bangladesh, generally passes through Europe, Asia, or the US before arriving in Chile, where it is resold around Latin America. The discarded clothing then journeys towards the desert as only a third of the used or discarded clothes make it to their intended resold destinations, as per a report by National Geographic. 

    The Atacama Fashion Week, set in the driest desert on earth, was the first of its kind.

    Towering piles of clothes in the desert. 

    (Photo: X/ SafiaManney)

    In continuation of the report, colossal piles of discarded clothes, with labels from all over the world, are found in the Alto Hospicio free zone where they go through another cycle of sorting and resale in small shops and street markets or at La Quebradilla, a massive open-air market. Items like faded T-shirts, jackets, and wool hats are found. 

    But the clothes that don't sell in these markets end up in the desert, the report states. As per a report by Grist, Nautica, Adidas, Wrangler, Old Navy, H&M, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Forever 21, Zara are the usual suspects.

    The Atacama Fashion Week, set in the driest desert on earth, was the first of its kind.

    Astudillo holding fashion fashion brand SHEIN's packet. 

    (Photo: Instagram/angeless.ab)

    And if you ask why that is, Dudu Bertholini, stylist and presenter, answers the question succinctly. During AFW Talks, he said:

    "In a very perverse logic, when you consider that many brands would rather see their clothes end up in landfills rather than donate them to people who really need them in their community, it's because of branding. It's a paradoxical and complex word because many brands understand that over producing the product reduces the value of the product, but the consumer has to pay the full price for it. So, it's better to see the product end up in landfills than give it to someone who is freezing to death. (Originally told in Portuguese)"
    Expand
  5. 5. A Mindset Change

    Fast fashion industries and their unchecked production rates that are primarily to be blamed for what is happening in the desert.

    Bertholini, during the AFW Talks, states:

    "We have to remember that the fast fashion industry is responsible for creating a desire, that we never had, and that we truly don't have. If we think back before the 2000s, we are talking about four to six collections a year. And with the rise of big fast fashion chains we have an average of 55 to 55 collections a year to meet a desire that never existed which also goes beyond functionality. It's not just about buying clothes anymore, we have to change our consumer mindset, our practices and habits."

    In case of the unregulated dumping of clothes in Chile, most of the power lies in the hands of the Chilean government. In 2016, Chile passed a law, called Extended Liability of the Producer, or Ley REP for short.

    The law makes producers and importers accountable for their products at the end of those products' lives. According to the Ministry of the Environment, Chile, textiles will soon be included in the list.

    However, in the case of clothes, the law is described as a "paper solution" as it lacks tangible enforcement, said Pino, from the Universidad Diego Portales to Grist.

    The fashion show, in the end, actively attempts to throw light on several of the key issues being faced by both the inhabitants and the environment to bring about "systematic change" (Ángela Astudillo, The Guardian). Bertholini, rightly points out during the AFW Talks that fashion creates "desire" and "creativity" which unquestionably will raise awareness.

    So, does it come as surprise that plans for a 2025 event is already underway?

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

What is Happening in Atacama Desert? 

Chile imports a massive 60,000 tonnes of used clothing every year, making it the third largest importer of discarded clothes globally. As per the official website of Atacama Fashion Week, while some of these clothes are sold in second-hand markets, at least 39,000 tonnes are illegally dumped in the Atacama Desert.

Ángela Astudillo, 27, co-founder of Desierto Vestido, an NGO that aims to raise awareness about the impact of waste, told The Guardian:

"This place is being used as a global sacrifice zone where waste from different parts of the world arrives and ends up around the municipality of Alto Hospicio." 

However, to address the vast scale of this problem, which has left local inhabitants devastated, Astudillo partnered with Fashion Revolution Brazil, a fashion activism movement, and Artplan, a Brazilian advertising agency. Together, by holding the fashion show amid the piles of discarded clothing, they aim to raise awareness about the environmental hazard plaguing the desert.

Especially when, according to a report by Grist, no rain has fallen in Alto Hospicio or the surrounding Atacama Desert region for 14 years. The dry conditions, combined with the nonbiodegradable, synthetic, petroleum-derived fibres of modern clothes, prevented the pile from shrinking. Instead, for over two decades, it has grown with every discarded, imported item added.

However, as if sprawling mounds of clothes are not bad enough, fires are occasionally set on some of the piles, releasing toxic smoke, in recent years.

The Atacama Fashion Week, set in the driest desert on earth, was the first of its kind.

The growing pile of clothing in the Atacama desert. 

(Photo: Instagram/angeless.ab)

Maya Ramos, stylist and designer, through the fashion show, intended to highlight the different forms of pollution to raise awareness about the issue.

She tasked Astudillo and others with collecting clothing from the dumps for the fashion show and later travelled to the Atacama Desert to assemble the outfits, spending 24 hours hand-cutting and stitching the collected clothes.

The stylist told The Guardian:

"The problem is more than fashion and the supply chain. It's a societal problem. People, through a lack of connection with nature, are consuming more than they need at an unbridled pace."
ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Why Are Clothes Being Dumped in Atacama Desert?

Chile boasts one of South America's largest duty-free ports, situated in the coastal city of Iquique on the western edge of the Atacama Desert.

Duty-free ports boost economic activity by allowing goods to be imported and re-exported without typical taxes and fees. Iquique's duty-free port, established in 1975, aimed to create jobs and revive the local economy.

Chile became a major importer of used clothes, transforming Iquique by booming its economy. The rise of fast fashion further increased these imports. 

The Atacama Fashion Week, set in the driest desert on earth, was the first of its kind.

A still of the pollution in the desert due to fast fashion. 

(Photo: X/ SafiaManney)

However, Fernanda Simon, the director of Fashion Revolution Brazil, a fashion activism movement told the The Guardian that there are elements of environmental racism and colonialism starkly present, wherein discarded clothes of the global north are being dumped in the global south.

In this case, the most vulnerable population is being impacted. Especially in Alto Hospicio, one of the poorest cities in Chile, the locals inhaling gasses when the clothes are being dumped and later incarcerated.

Why is It Being Dubbed as a 'Global Sacrifice Zone'?

A sacrifice zone is where residents are subjected to heightened levels of pollution and hazardous materials, despite the adverse impacts on their health. 

The desert is called a "global sacrifice zone" because heaps of clothing dumped there pollute the environment whether left in the open or buried, releasing toxins into the air and the underground channels of water, as per National Geographic

And when the clothes are incarcerated, they also release toxic fumes, damaging the soil, the ozone layer, and the health of the local population.

Moreover, most of the clothes dumped there are made of synthetic materials that won't biodegrade for 200 years and are as toxic as discarded tyres or plastics, the AFW site acknowledges.

The sheer scale at which the area has become a dumping ground for the developed countries is a cause for global concern. Especially because between 2000 and 2014, clothing production doubled, and consumers started buying 60 percent more clothes but wearing them for half as long, according to UNESCO.

The Atacama Fashion Week, set in the driest desert on earth, was the first of its kind.

Satellite image of the dumping ground in Atacama Desert.  

(Photo: SkyFi)

In this case, it is estimated that three-fifths of all clothing ends up in landfills or incinerators within a year of being made. The numbers suggest that Chile is one of many countries in the global south that is facing the brunt of hyper-consumerism. 

Fernanda Simon, states during the AFW Talks that it's important to look beyond the clothes and look into the makings of it, she says: "When you look at the beautiful landscape of Atacama and then the discarded clothes, which can even be seen from space, it's obvious something is very wrong when talk about fashion and its current level of production."

Another example, which faces a similar situation, is the city of Accra in Ghana, where towering piles of clothes are present in one part of the city, and on another side, the shoreline has become a dumping ground for a tangled web of clothes as well. 

The Atacama Fashion Week, set in the driest desert on earth, was the first of its kind.

Towering piles of clothes in Ghana. 

(Photo: CBS)

In India, Panipat has been dubbed as a "cast-off capital", BBC reports. Similar to Chile and Ghana, every day hundreds of tonnes of clothes from global West arrive in the city.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Where are the Clothes Coming From?

The second-hand and unsold clothing, made in China or Bangladesh, generally passes through Europe, Asia, or the US before arriving in Chile, where it is resold around Latin America. The discarded clothing then journeys towards the desert as only a third of the used or discarded clothes make it to their intended resold destinations, as per a report by National Geographic. 

The Atacama Fashion Week, set in the driest desert on earth, was the first of its kind.

Towering piles of clothes in the desert. 

(Photo: X/ SafiaManney)

In continuation of the report, colossal piles of discarded clothes, with labels from all over the world, are found in the Alto Hospicio free zone where they go through another cycle of sorting and resale in small shops and street markets or at La Quebradilla, a massive open-air market. Items like faded T-shirts, jackets, and wool hats are found. 

But the clothes that don't sell in these markets end up in the desert, the report states. As per a report by Grist, Nautica, Adidas, Wrangler, Old Navy, H&M, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Forever 21, Zara are the usual suspects.

The Atacama Fashion Week, set in the driest desert on earth, was the first of its kind.

Astudillo holding fashion fashion brand SHEIN's packet. 

(Photo: Instagram/angeless.ab)

And if you ask why that is, Dudu Bertholini, stylist and presenter, answers the question succinctly. During AFW Talks, he said:

"In a very perverse logic, when you consider that many brands would rather see their clothes end up in landfills rather than donate them to people who really need them in their community, it's because of branding. It's a paradoxical and complex word because many brands understand that over producing the product reduces the value of the product, but the consumer has to pay the full price for it. So, it's better to see the product end up in landfills than give it to someone who is freezing to death. (Originally told in Portuguese)"
ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

A Mindset Change

Fast fashion industries and their unchecked production rates that are primarily to be blamed for what is happening in the desert.

Bertholini, during the AFW Talks, states:

"We have to remember that the fast fashion industry is responsible for creating a desire, that we never had, and that we truly don't have. If we think back before the 2000s, we are talking about four to six collections a year. And with the rise of big fast fashion chains we have an average of 55 to 55 collections a year to meet a desire that never existed which also goes beyond functionality. It's not just about buying clothes anymore, we have to change our consumer mindset, our practices and habits."

In case of the unregulated dumping of clothes in Chile, most of the power lies in the hands of the Chilean government. In 2016, Chile passed a law, called Extended Liability of the Producer, or Ley REP for short.

The law makes producers and importers accountable for their products at the end of those products' lives. According to the Ministry of the Environment, Chile, textiles will soon be included in the list.

However, in the case of clothes, the law is described as a "paper solution" as it lacks tangible enforcement, said Pino, from the Universidad Diego Portales to Grist.

The fashion show, in the end, actively attempts to throw light on several of the key issues being faced by both the inhabitants and the environment to bring about "systematic change" (Ángela Astudillo, The Guardian). Bertholini, rightly points out during the AFW Talks that fashion creates "desire" and "creativity" which unquestionably will raise awareness.

So, does it come as surprise that plans for a 2025 event is already underway?

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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