Castoffs to catwalk: fashion show shines light on vast Chile clothes dump visible from space | Global development

Draped in layers of denim, Sadlin Charles walks the catwalk of sand between piles of discarded clothes and tyres in Chile’s Atacama desert. His outfit has been made from items found in the surrounding heaps of rubbish, which are so vast they can be seen from space. Almost all of this waste has come from countries thousands of miles away, including the US, China, South Korea and the UK.

A staggering 60,000 tonnes of used clothing is shipped to Chile each year. According to the latest UN figures, Chile is the third largest importer of secondhand clothes in the world. Some of these clothes are resold in secondhand markets, but at least 39,000 tonnes ends up being illegally dumped in the Atacama desert. The desert is one of the country’s most popular tourism destinations, famed for its otherworldly beauty and stargazing, but for those living near the dump sites it has become a place of devastation.

“This place is being 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 organisation that aims to raise awareness about the environmental impact of the waste. “It builds up in different areas, is incinerated and also buried.

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

Astudillo, 27, lives a five-minute drive from one of about 160 dumps in the area. She sees trucks full of rubbish drive past and regularly breathes in smoke from the fires started to burn the 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 in danger. The only thing we can do is denounce what is happening, and stand idly by,” she says.

To counter this feeling of powerlessness, her organisation teamed up with Fashion Revolution Brazil, a fashion activism movement, and Artplan, a Brazilian advertising agency, to put on a fashion show amid the rubbish to raise awareness of the reality she lives with, and to illustrate what can be made out of the waste.

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

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

From afar, Ramos, 32, tasked Astudillo and others with collecting items of clothing from the dumps that would fit into the theme of the four elements – earth, fire, air and water. She later travelled to the Atacama desert to put the outfits together for the show and spent 24 hours cutting and stitching the clothes that had been collected, as well as others she found, by hand.

Each outfit symbolises different types of pollution and the impact on the environment. The drab grey shirt that Charles modelled embodies the pollution caused by rampant clothing production. The denim cutouts, layered like discarded waste, symbolise piles of clothing covered in desert dust, while the belt on the denim vest represents the constraints this environmental injustice places on the lives of the people who live in the area.

“People there are living in poverty and it’s precarious. The situation is one of urgency,” says Ramos. “The problem is more than fashion and the supply chain. It’s a societal problem. People, through a lack of connection with nature, are consuming more than they need at an unbridled pace.”

On average, each consumer buys 60% more clothing than 20 years ago and 92m tonnes of textile waste are created annually. Every second, the equivalent of a lorry load of clothes ends up on a landfill site somewhere around the world.

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

As fast fashion – cheap clothes bought and cast aside as trends change – has grown, the volume of clothing being produced has increased, while the quality has gone down.

A popular way to dispose of 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 big trade in secondhand clothing and where the authorities receiving these loads cannot handle the amount.

In Accra, Ghana’s capital, tangled webs of clothes line the shore, while mountains of textile waste have built up in another area of the city. The shocking scene in northern Chile has been attracting increasing attention in recent years. In 2023, the images of the discarded clothes as 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 through the garments.

Unwanted clothing ends up in the hands of truck drivers who ferry it a few miles to dumps outside Alto Hospicio, an expanding municipality with a population of about 130,000 people. Here, it goes through another cycle of sorting and resale in small shops or at La Quebradilla, a huge open-air market with a roaring trade in used clothes.

In Chile it is forbidden to dump textile waste in legal landfills because it generates soil instability, so items that don’t sell are destined for the desert. Brands commonly found amid the sand include Zara, H&M, Calvin Klein, Levi’s, Wrangler, Nike and Adidas. Most of them are made of polyester, a plastic-based fabric that takes as long as 200 years to decompose. When these garments are incinerated, they release toxic fumes, damaging the soil, the ozone layer and the health of the local population.

Fernanda Simon, the director of Fashion Revolution Brazil, says there is an element of environmental racism and colonialism in systems that see products being consumed in the global north before being discarded in the global south. It is the most vulnerable populations who are affected; in Alto Hospicio, one of the poorest cities in Chile, people are inhaling gases as clothes are burned.

“Atacama is one example,” she says. “We have this beautiful place where many people travel to. Now, nearly 50,000 tonnes of clothes have been discarded there. The clothes come from countries in the global north.

“We need systemic change.”

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

The country has implemented the “Law of extended responsibility of the producer” which establishes a legal framework for waste management, while holding importers responsible for the waste they generate. However, it does not yet include clothing and textiles.

In the meantime, the clothes keep coming and the waste keeps building.

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