From ski jackets to jeans: Mountains of new clothes end up in the fast-fashion desert | abroad

videoBig apparel companies release collections about as many weeks as a year. Unsold textiles end up in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. According to experts, there are more than 100,000 tons of discarded clothing.

Remy Lehmann / HLN

Last updated:
05-01-22, 15:08

This makes the Atacama Desert one of the largest clothing dumps in the world. Textiles come mainly from North America, Europe, and Asia. Thousands of tons of clothing are imported for almost nothing through the nearby port city of Iquique.

Mountains of neglected clothes in the Atacama Desert in Chile. © AFP

“On average, 39,000 tons of textiles arrive here each year,” said Franklin Zepeda of EcoFibra. His company is trying to give a sustainable destination to discarded clothing and use it to make insulation panels for social housing in Iquique.

The height of the clothes mountains reaches five meters

He explains to the Argentine news channel TN how the selection process for Chilean clothing importers takes place: the sorting centers are separated in the port. What merchants think they can sell is shipped to the capital, Santiago, where most consumers live. But the rest is dumped illegally in the desert near the port.

In the mountains, sometimes four to five meters high, you will find damaged textiles, as well as new clothes that are considered “unsellable”. Think, for example, of sizes XXL, which sell poorly in Chile, or ski jackets. The sticker with the original selling price often remains attached.

Clothes mountains in the Atacama Desert.
Clothes mountains in the Atacama Desert. © AFP


It takes up to 200 years for a garment to decompose. That is why in Chile it is forbidden to throw textiles into an ordinary landfill: clothes are not biodegradable and contain many chemicals. This is why illegal dumping is a danger to the drinking water supply. Pollution is permeating the groundwater aquifers in one of the driest regions in the world.

Plus, the fast-fashion desert is on fire regularly. This is one of the ways that people try to reduce the mountains of clothing. But combustion releases toxic substances that cause problems for local residents.

A tiny portion of discarded clothing is still used. But this is the result of another tragedy: For thousands of poor immigrants, often Venezuelans, the city of Iquique is a transit point on their way to a better second life. They put on new clothes for free after an arduous journey of thousands of kilometres.

Archive photo.  Venezuelan immigrants in the coastal city of Iquique, Chile.
Archive photo. Venezuelan immigrants in the coastal city of Iquique, Chile. © AP

new law

Chile is the largest importer of clothing in South America, but the illegal landfill has long turned a blind eye. The national government is now working on a corporate social responsibility law. This makes Chile’s textile industry, as well as importers, responsible for the waste they produce.

However, according to Zepeda, the problem lies deeper. He largely attributes the mountains of clothing to fast fashion culture: “As consumers, we (…) should only buy, repair and recycle clothes we really need. It’s a global problem.”

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