Chile’s Atacama Desert: where fast fashion will die
Deep in Chile’s Atacama Desert, new dunes are forming – not sand, but last year’s unsold clothing from around the world. Stacked on top of victims of the previous year’s fast fashion and unpurchased clothing lines, the clothes are typically filled with toxins and dyes and don’t biodegrade. The result: a fast fashion faux pas and environmental disaster that has been largely ignored – until now.
Aljazeera has estimated that up to 59,000 tonnes of clothing that cannot be sold in the United States or Europe ends up at the port of Iquique each year in the Alto Hospicio free zone in northern Chile. These are intended for resale in Latin America, but only 20,000 tonnes actually circulate on the continent.
What is not sold in Santiago or smuggled and shipped to other countries remains in the free zone. It is no one’s responsibility to clean up and no one will pay the fees necessary to remove it, Aljazeera reported.
Unfortunately, clothes can take hundreds of years to biodegrade, if at all. Municipal landfills will not accept textiles because of the chemicals they contain, the NY Post reported. As a result, up to 39,000 tonnes of unsold and unwanted clothing is ultimately trucked to the world’s driest desert each year, where it literally covers the dunes in layers and layers of discarded textiles.
Women search for used clothing among tons dumped in the Atacama Desert, Alto Hospicio, Iquique, Chile, September 26, 2021. MARTIN BERNETTI / AFP / Getty Images
Franklin Zepeda founded EcoFibra to fight this largely invisible environmental disaster. His company makes insulation boards using discarded clothing.
“I wanted to stop being the problem and start being the solution,” he told AFP of the company he started in 2018.
While the human externalities of rampant consumerism – with child labor and horrific factory conditions – are well documented, the environmental cost is less publicized and less understood. The truth, however, is that fast fashion uses an outrageous amount of water – something in the order of 7,500 liters for a pair of jeans, according to a United Nations press report. This is the equivalent amount of water that the average person drinks over seven years, the international body noted. In total, UNCTAD estimates that the fashion industry uses around 93 billion cubic meters of water each year, enough to quench the thirst of five million people.
“When we think of industries that have a detrimental effect on the environment, manufacturing, energy, transportation and even food production may spring to mind,” the UN report said. “But the fashion industry is widely regarded as the second most polluting industry in the world,” just behind the big oil companies.
The report also estimated that about half a million tons of microfibers end up in the oceans each year at the hands of fast fashion and your washing machine. This is the equivalent of 3 million barrels of oil.
As for climate change, clothing production accounts for 8-10% more global carbon emissions each year, more than all international flights and shipping combined, Insider and the UN reported.
Factories also often dump chemicals from manufacturing into local streams and rivers, making them toxic and polluting to communities downstream. This is especially bad in places like Bangladesh and Indonesia, known as centers of cheap textile manufacturing.
“We are committing hydrocide,” said Sunita Narain, director general of the Center for Science and Environment in India, of the dirty practice. “We are deliberately killing our rivers.”
Aerial view of used clothing discarded in the Atacama Desert, in Alto Hospicio, Iquique, Chile, September 26, 2021. MARTIN BERNETTI / AFP / Getty Images
In 2017, a documentary on waterway pollution caused by fast fashion revealed that tanneries were dumping toxic chromium into the water supply in Kanpur, India. The chemical then found its way into cow’s milk and agricultural products.
All this environmental cost doesn’t even take into account the end-of-life pollution created by clothing. Unsold clothing is usually burned, buried, or trucked to Chile. In all of these scenarios, toxins in clothing are released into the air and underground water channels, Aljazeera reported. As noted above, the colors, sequins, and other accessories that make clothes the style of the minute also usually create environmental damage when chemicals seep in and the clothes don’t biodegrade.
Is there a solution ? Unfortunately, not downstream.
The analysis shows a continuous increase in consumerism. McKinsey estimated that the average consumer bought 60% more clothing in 2014 than in 2000, Insider reported. This corresponds to the doubling of clothing production between 2004 and 2019 seen by the Ellen McArthur Foundation, the report added.
“We need a model that does not compromise ethical, social and environmental values and involves customers, rather than encouraging them to buy ever changing trends,” Greenpeace noted as part of its Detox My Fashion campaign. at Greenpeace Italy.
Instead of changing our wardrobes and styles with the whims and attitudes of fast fashion, experts encourage us to slow down our desire for more. Manufacturers are also encouraged to create parts that are designed to last and adopt genuinely sustainable practices. Changes and innovations in dyeing and fiber selection can help. As consumers and manufacturers, it is only by changing our mindsets instead of our outfits that we can make a real change.
Until then, the toxic dunes of the Chilean desert will continue to grow.
Tiffany Duong is an inspiring writer, explorer and speaker. She graduated from UCLA and Carey Law School at the University of Pennsylvania. As a contributing journalist at EcoWatch, she gives voice to what is happening in the natural world. Its mission is to inspire meaningful action and lasting change. Follow her on Twitter / Instagram / TikTok @tiffmakeswaves.
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