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March 27, 2024

The Atacama Desert in Chile conjures images of breathtaking landscapes – majestic rock formations, mesmerising geysers, and ethereal salt flats reflecting a star-studded sky. However, a harsh reality lurks beneath this picturesque facade.

Some of the natural beauty of the Atacama desert in northern Chile

Images above: a blue waterhole in the white salt formations (top left photo by Benjamín Gremler via Unsplash), llamas (top right photo by Alex Wolowiecki via Unsplash), flamingos of Laguna Chaxa (bottom left photo by Alex Wolowiecki via Unsplash) and a large cactus (bottom right photo by Bibiana Davila via Unsplash) in San Pedro de Atacama, one of the world's driest desert at the Andes’ foothills. Banner image: a satellite image of Atacama showing the vivid colours of the salt pans and gorges choked with mineral-streaked sediments and white-capped volcanoes (photo by USGS via Unsplash).


Fast Fashion's Hidden Cost

Just a stone's throw away from these natural wonders lies a shocking truth: the Atacama Desert has become a global dumping ground for unwanted clothing. The culprit? The ever-growing fast fashion industry. The vast Alto Hospicio landfill, on the outskirts of Iquique, is a grim testament to this issue. Each year, a staggering 39,000 tons of discarded clothing – a significant portion originating from fast fashion giants – find their final resting place here.


The Environmental Toll of Fast Fashion

Fast fashion's environmental impact is undeniable. Its production guzzles vast amounts of water and energy, leaving a trail of waste – textiles, packaging, and shipping materials. Consumers, often enticed by budget-friendly clothing from online retailers and mall outlets, might not grasp the true cost of their purchases. These seemingly harmless choices fuel a relentless cycle that harms the planet and the people within its machinery.


A Desolate Landscape Scars

The Atacama Desert exemplifies this destructive cycle. The arid climate and sparse vegetation hinder natural decomposition, causing discarded garments to accumulate in landfills. These mountains of clothing leach harmful chemicals, like phthalates, azo dyes, heavy metals and microplastics into the soil, perpetuating environmental degradation.

landfill at Atacama - the toxic desert

Image above: landfill at Atacama - the toxic desert (photo by tonynetone via Flickr).


A Secondhand Market Oversaturated

The clothing arriving in Chile is often sorted for resale in other Latin American countries. Iquique is a tax-free zone, which means companies do not pay customs duties on imported goods. This makes it very convenient for companies around the world to ship there their unsold or second-hand clothes. Some find their way into local shops and markets like La Quebradilla, one of Chile's largest. However, the vast majority – around 40,000 tons annually – ends up in landfills like Alto Hospicio, which currently holds an estimated 60,000 tons of clothing.

As Alto Hospicio Mayor Patricio Ferreira stated to BBC Mundo, "Unfortunately, we have turned our city, our region, and our country into the world's dump". Only a small portion of imported clothing is resold, while the rest, often damaged or unwanted, cannot be disposed of safely and ends up in illegal landfills, further contaminating the environment. Shockingly, Dazed magazine reports that only 15% of the clothing arriving in Iquique is truly secondhand, meaning the vast majority has never even been worn.


Beyond Environmental Devastation: Health Risks for Communities

The consequences extend far beyond the environment. Residents living near the Alto Hospicio landfill face the brunt of the health risks. Air pollution from the site, compounded by chemicals from the clothing, leads to respiratory problems and other health issues. Additionally, the landfill attracts pests like rats and insects, increasing the risk of disease transmission.

Communities in Atacama desert

Images above: a woman walking a street (top left photo by Juan Manuel Núñez Méndez via Unsplash), a herd walking down a road (bottom left photo by Mauro Lima via Unsplash), and windows (right photo by Amanda María via Unsplash) in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.


Breaking the Cycle: Solutions for a Sustainable Future

Combating the fast fashion waste crisis requires a multi-pronged approach:

- Consumer Power:

Consumers can reduce industry waste by curbing their fast fashion consumption. Prioritise quality over quantity and embrace sustainable alternatives by ethical brands like yours.

- Sustainable Brands:

Brands like ours can make a difference by adopting sustainable practices – utilising eco-friendly materials like organic cotton, sustainable bamboo and water-based ink, minimising waste generation by incorporating waste innovations such as eco-concrete made with fabric scraps or up-cycling materials, and ensuring supply chain transparency.

- Government Regulations:

Governments can play a crucial role by enacting regulations such as bans on harmful chemicals and taxes on disposable clothing, thereby incentivising sustainable practices within the industry.




A Glimmer of Hope for a Sustainable Fashion Future

The fast fashion industry faces significant challenges, but a glimmer of hope for transformation exists. Through raising awareness and taking action by consumers, brands, and governments, a more sustainable future for fashion is achievable. By championing change together, we can grow a slow fashion industry that not only dazzles but also fosters a healthy planet for generations to come.

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