Atacama Desert: From observatory to fashion dump

The excessive consumption of fast fashion has resulted in a clothing dump with tons of used and unsold garments in the Atacama desert.

Panoramic of Atacama Dessert

Photo: Pixabay

LatinAmerican Post | Vanesa López Romero


The Atacama Desert in Chile is known as the driest place on planet Earth. Its climatic and environmental conditions allow it to be a site with unique fauna and flora, as well as being the best place in the world to observe the sky. In it, there are more than a dozen astronomical observatories of the most advanced levels, for which Chile has more than 40% of the astronomical activity in the globe. However, that is not the reason why the Atacama has recently been on everyone’s lips, but rather because it has now become another of the many clothing dumps that the fashion industry, fast fashion, and excessive consumption leave behind. 

The fashion industry: an environmental and social hazard 

It may sound surprising, but the fashion industry consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industries combined. But it is not a secret that this industry is one of the most polluting, since it represents more than 10% of greenhouse gas emissions, it is one of the causes of deforestation due to the extraction of tree cellulose to produce textiles. viscous and generates very high levels of contamination in the soil and water sources that are close to its production plants. In addition, the chemicals used in their processes end up in the oceans and other bodies of water, affecting not only wildlife, but also humans. 

Also read: What Would Happen If the Amazon Turns Into A Desert?

This generates not only an environmental problem, but also a public and social health risk, because the plants of the most recognized brands and those that make fast fashion are located in poor and developing countries, so the people who are directly affected by it are the most vulnerable. 

Atacama: the landfill of other countries

The situation in Atacama results in two points: first, not all the garments that are found in the gigantic piles in Atacama are used, many are with a label, which means that they are not they sold and the brands decided to discard them. Secondly, the clothes found here were not used or intended to be sold in Chile, they are all brought from other parts of the world, which makes the Atacama basically the dumping ground for the global fashion industry. 

This is in part because Iqueque, the closest city to the Atacama clothing dump site, is one of the largest second-hand clothing ports in South America. Specifically, tons of used clothing arrive at the Iqueque Free Trade Zone, where it is sold and bought at retail, but also wholesale in bales of approximately 50 kilos. These come mostly from the United States, but also from countries in Europe and Asia. However, not all the bales are sold, and they end up being dumped in the desert. 

The clothes that arrive from the places we already mentioned are usually “charity” clothes. I mean donated. This comes from the idea that people in Latin American and developing countries do not have the possibility of easily accessing clothes, but this has not happened for more than 40 years. 

Meanwhile, the authorities have stayed silent. But they did assure that around three and a half million dollars are needed to remove the piles of clothes that accumulate in the desert and that not only affect the landscape, but also pollute the environment. 

Fast fashion must stop

Bearing in mind that much of the clothing found in the textile dump is new, we can see that fast fashion is largely responsible for this scenario. Let’s remember that fast fashion is the tendency to produce clothes in large quantities and release collections almost every week. Before, clothing brands launched 4 collections a year, now they launch around 52. This responds to massive consumption by buyers. 

The situation in the Atacama desert says a lot about how we behave as textile consumers and how the fashion industry has shaped us. Behind this is a capitalist ideology that puts sales and profits above environmental and social consequences. 

Today, a place recognized for being an amazing observatory becomes a place recognized for being the garbage dump of world powers. 

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