Fashion’s dark side

Fast fashion waste from Europe, US and Asia piles up in the Atacama Desert.

The Atacama Desert in Chile is a unique ecosystem, considered a global biodiversity hotspot, but the dirty secret is that it is also home to a toxic cemetery for fast fashion waste. The free zone of Puerto Iquique, in the middle of the Atacama Desert, has 39,000 tonnes of clothes brought from the US, Europe and Asia.

A specialist in Extended Producer Responsibility (“REP”) provided local context, “Chile has two free zones that allow the import of used clothing, which is prohibited in the rest of the country. The clothing issue started by a lack of control on the part of the public supervisory system in which there are merchants who dump what they don’t use and the desert has become one such dumping ground. Unchecked, this spiraled out of control and now we have a crisis.”

“Chile has two free zones that allow the import of used clothing, which is prohibited in the rest of the country.”

Specialist in Extended Producer Responsibility, Chile

In the last four decades, Chile has specialised in the trade and sale of second-hand textile products and the tax free zone of Puerto Iquique is the epicentre of this trade practice. Employees from the free zone claim that every year 59,000 tonnes of clothes arrive at the site. Unsold clothes are dumped in illegal landfill sites as there is no way of generating profit from them.

The REP specialist continued, “The textile crisis in the desert is not because there is no sanitary regulation, the underlying issue is that there is inadequate control over the activities of the merchants who generate this waste.”

“The textile crisis in the desert is not because there is no sanitary regulation, the underlying issue is that there is inadequate control over the activities of the merchants who generate this waste.”

Specialist in Extended Producer Responsibility, Chile

The Chilean government has previously announced that it would pass a producer responsibility law which will hold clothing importers accountable for the disposal and recycling of textile waste. In September 2021, Carolina Schmidt, the Minister of Environment of Chile said that the government was working with the Inter-American Development Bank to include circular economy guidelines in the textile producer responsibility law. However, the current political instability in Chile means this is unlikely to be a top priority.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development considers the textile industry as a major source of pollution and waste worldwide as it is characterised by the overproduction and over-consumption of low-cost clothes. Converting the current linear systems for production and distribution into a circular system with limited stocks and optimised resources would increase efficiency and reduce the industry’s environmental impact.

In the case of the Atacama Desert, EcoFibra, a thermal insulator producer, uses textile waste for its product, a pioneering practice in the country. The former retail industry CEO commented, “It is commendable that EcoFibra are helping to clear up the Atacama Desert but in reality they are feeding off a problem that shouldn’t exist in the first place. The industry must replace fast fashion with circular fashion.”

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