fashion show sheds light on enormous clothing dump in Chile, visible from space

Dressed in layers of denim, Sadlin Charles walks the sand catwalk among piles of discarded clothes and tires in Chile’s Atacama Desert. His outfit is made from items found in the surrounding waste piles, which are so large they are visible from space. Nearly all of this waste comes from countries thousands of miles away, including the US, China, South Korea and Britain.

As much as 60,000 tons of used clothing is shipped to Chile every year. According to the latest UN figures, Chile is the third largest importer of second-hand clothing in the world. Some of this clothing is resold on second-hand markets, but at least 39,000 tons are ultimately dumped illegally in the Atacama Desert. The desert is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, famous for its otherworldly beauty and stargazing, but for those who live near the dumps it has become a place of devastation.

“This place is used as a global sacrifice zone where waste from different parts of the world arrives and ends up around the municipality of Alto Hospicio,” says Ángela Astudillo, co-founder of Desierto Vestido, a non-governmental organization that aims to raise awareness about the environmental impact of the waste. “It piles up in different areas, is burned and also buried.

“The way this has affected us the most is stigmatization, because we are portrayed as one of the dirtiest and ugliest places in the world.”

Astudillo, 27, lives a five-minute drive from one of the area’s approximately 160 landfills. She sees trucks full of garbage driving by and regularly inhales the smoke from the fires that burn clothes. She has received threats for her work documenting the problem.

“It’s sad because this has been happening for a long time and the people who live here can’t do anything because it puts us at risk. All we can do is denounce what is happening and sit idly by,” she says.

To counter this feeling of powerlessness, her organization partnered with Fashion Revolution Brazil, a fashion activist movement, and Artplan, a Brazilian advertising agency, to put on a fashion show amid the mess to raise awareness of the reality she lives with. show what can be made from waste.

Maya Ramos, a stylist and visual artist from the state of São Paulo in Brazil, designed a collection worn by eight Chilean models during the show in April, called Atacama fashion week 2024. Plans are already underway for a 2025 event.

  • Brazilian stylist Maya Ramos designed the collection – around the theme of the four elements, earth, fire, air and water – from objects dumped at the site

From afar, Ramos, 32, instructed Astudillo and others to collect garments from the dumps that would fit the theme of the four elements – earth, fire, air and water. She later traveled to the Atacama Desert to put together the outfits for the show, spending 24 hours hand-cutting and sewing the clothes she collected, as well as others she found.

Each outfit symbolizes different types of pollution and its impact on the environment. The pale gray shirt that Charles modeled embodies the pollution caused by rampant clothing production. The denim cutouts, layered like discarded trash, symbolize piles of clothing covered in desert dust, while the belt on the denim vest represents the limitations this environmental injustice places on the lives of the people living in the area.

“The people there live in poverty and it is precarious. The situation is urgent,” Ramos said. “The problem goes beyond fashion and the supply chain. It is a social problem. Due to a lack of connection with nature, people are consuming more than they need at an unbridled pace.”

On average, each consumer buys 60% more clothing than twenty years ago and 92 million tons of textile waste are created annually. Every second, the equivalent of a truckload of clothing ends up in a landfill somewhere in the world.

According to the UN, the fashion industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters, responsible for about 20% of the planet’s wastewater and about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions.

As fast fashion – cheap clothing that is bought and thrown away as trends change – has grown, the volume of clothing produced has increased while the quality has declined.

A popular way to throw away clothes in developed countries is to give them to charity shops. But many of these donations end up in countries in the global south, where there is a large trade in second-hand clothing and where the authorities receiving these shipments cannot cope with the amount.

In Accra, the capital of Ghana, tangles of clothes lie on the coast, while mountains of textile waste have piled up in another part of the city. The shocking scene in northern Chile has received increasing attention in recent years. In 2023, images of the discarded clothes seen from space went viral.

The city of Iquique, in northern Chile, is home to one of the most important duty-free ports in South America. When clothes arrive, importers gather and workers sort the garments.

Unwanted clothing ends up in the hands of truckers who transport it a few miles away to dumps outside Alto Hospicio, a growing community of about 130,000 residents. Here it goes through a new cycle of sorting and resale in small shops or at La Quebradilla, a huge open-air market with a bustling used clothing trade.

In Chile, it is illegal to dump textile waste in legal landfills because it causes soil instability. Items that are not sold are destined for the desert. Brands often found in the sand include Zara, H&M, Calvin Klein, Levi’s, Wrangler, Nike and Adidas. Most are made of polyester, a plastic-based fabric that takes up to 200 years to decompose. When these garments are burned, toxic fumes are released, which damage the soil, the ozone layer and the health of the local population.

Fernanda Simon, director of Fashion Revolution Brazil, says there is an element of environmental racism and colonialism in systems where products are consumed in the Global North before being discarded in the Global South. It is the most vulnerable population groups that are affected; In Alto Hospicio, one of the poorest cities in Chile, people breathe in gases as clothes are burned.

“Atacama is an example of that,” she says. “We have a beautiful place that many people travel to. Now almost 50,000 tons of clothing have been thrown away there. The clothing comes from countries in the global north.

“We need systemic change.”

Local authorities have introduced fines of 180,000 pesos (£150) for people caught dumping waste in the desert, Astudillo says. But she says only areas near where people live are monitored, few fines are issued and dumping continues unabated.

The country has implemented the “Law of Extended Producer Responsibility,” which establishes a legal framework for waste management while holding importers responsible for the waste they produce. However, clothing and textiles are not yet included.

Meanwhile, the clothes keep coming and the waste keeps piling up.

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