Late last year, the realities of fashion waste crisis in the Atacama Desert made headlines. You might have seen some of them:
“The fast fashion graveyard in Chile’s Atacama Desert”, or “Chile’s Atacama Desert: Where Fast Fashion Goes to Die” or maybe “Chile’s Desert: dumping ground for fast fashion’s leftovers”.
In this episode, we’re hearing from Angela of Desierto Vestido and Laura from SumOfUs to go beyond the headlines to discover what led to this waste crisis decades before it grabbed the attention of the media and how things have been faring after the news stories died down…
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Read the Transcript From This Interview:
Hey everyone and welcome or welcome back to the Conscious Style Podcast!
As I talked about in the intro, this upcoming episode will be all about the realities of fashion’s waste crisis in the Atacama Desert.
So this story hit the media, I would say, in late 2021, early 2022, but in case you missed it, photos and accounts of clothing dumps in the middle of the Atacama Desert in Chile went viral.
So Chile is Latin America’s biggest importer of secondhand clothing, and imported nearly 60,000 tonnes of secondhand and unsold clothing last year.
And similar to the story of Kantamanto Market in Accra, Ghana, or Owino market in Kampala, Uganda, the secondhand markets in Chile cannot possibly resell all of the clothing that is arriving at their ports.
So: where does this clothing go? Although it may look like it goes “away” for the fashion brands or “away” for those of us who might have donated or “recycled” those clothes, we know that away is still somewhere. These clothes don’t just disappear into thin air, right?
Especially since we know that the majority of clothing today is made up of at least a percentage of synthetic plastic fibers.
And one of these places — in addition to Accra, Ghana and Kampala, Uganda that is dealing with the “away” of the secondhand and overproduced clothing is the Atacama Desert in Chile.
So in this episode, you’ll be hearing from Angela of the local activist group Desierto Vestido — which translates to Desert Dress – and Laura from SumOfUs, a global nonprofit advocacy organization and online community that campaigns to hold corporations accountable on issues like climate change and human rights.
Angela will be speaking in Spanish, so we have English translation provided by Nao, who is the social media manager at our sister organization, Conscious Fashion Collective.
And the transcript for this episode will be available in the show notes as usual. The link to the show notes can always be found in the episode description of, I would say, most podcast listening apps.
So this was a special episode to put together. It was a bit of extra coordination and editing but I think the result was well worth it. I’m so grateful that Angela, Laura, and Nao were able to join me for this really important conversation.
And we also talk about action steps towards the end. Because as we know, awareness — while an essential step — is unfortunately not enough to actually get the change that we seek.
And I feel like that’s one of the biggest things that media outlets missed with this story is where do we go from here? How do we take action? How do we hold the responsible parties accountable? What can we do? I think that’s super important.
And I just always like to make sure that we talk about how we can get involved and take action whenever discussing an issue like this. Because I feel like when you present this massive issue and you don’t give people ways to actually change things, they’re either paralyzed by the overwhelming nature or they develop this apathy because they just think ‘well, that’s the way things are. It’s unfortunate but that’s just how they are and that’s how they will be.
And if you’ve been listening to this show, if you follow @conscioustyle on Instagram, if you know me at all, you know I do not believe in that at all. Change is possible. But it won’t just happen automatically, right? We have to be part of the change that we want to see.
Anyway, rant over. Let’s get into the show! To start us off, Angela, is sharing a bit of background on the fashion waste crisis in the Atacama Desert, and Nao is going to translate for us…
For over 20 years this zone has been used as a sacrifice zone or textile waste, where tonnes of clothes are thrown there and then burned or buried and there isn’t a good managing of this residues..
It’s been an excessive throwing of clothing and that has affected the people around and impoverishing the communities that surround the desert.
The clothes from all around the world and up in the desert, from underwear, to bags, to anything else. It’s in bad state so it’s the things that don’t go through that quality check. And even new things with the tags are found in there.
All this is because of fast fashion. And because there is no supervision in the customer office. So the thing just get their as secondhand clothes even if it isn’t. And it’s just named as secondhand clothes, even if it’s not.
Mhm, yeah. And Laura, could you tell us more where these clothes are coming from? How do these secondhand clothes and in some cases, unsold unworn clothes end up even getting imported to Chile in the first place?
Yeah, of course. So as Angela mentioned, Chile has just become one of the dumped grounds for secondhand clothing and Latin America. And it’s all really part of a very dirty supply chain.
So how it starts, I’m kind of in a general way of explaining it. It’s secondhand and unsold clothing. It’s often produced in Asia first, and then it passes through Europe and the US. And then whatever isn’t sold there — which is a lot because companies overproduce — then that is shipped to Chile.
Again, because fast fashion has this incentive. It’s just cheaper to overproduce. And what we found is that, yeah, we were surprised that Chile is Latin America’s top importer of secondhand clothing.
So a lot of this, a lot of these clothes are brought through the port of Iquique. And this is a free zone. So it’s also known as a free zone of Iquique. And that is one of the country’s free trade zones and approximately around 60,000 tonnes of clothing enter that port every year, which is sold by retailers in Latin America. So it’s a lot of clothes.
Wow. 60,000 tonnes of clothing every single year. It’s almost difficult to wrap your head around how much clothing that really is.
And I read in a report put together by SumOfUs that only 15% of the clothing entering the ports is able to get resold within the secondhand markets there and 85% of it is getting dumped. So Laura, can you tell us a bit more about why so much of this clothes is not able to be resold?
Yeah, so there are two elements to this. One is the one I just mentioned that it’s overproduction and just simply not being able to sell it all. And overproducing is just both cheaper and logistically easier for the retailer, so they order too much, and then they just deal with the excess later.
And it’s both a question of convenience, but also financial gain, because also sometimes manufacturers often have a minimum threshold in terms of orders.
And the other element of it is dealing with the waste itself that recycling for example, it’s labor, and it requires sorting through the clothes and separating the garments. And it also just requires more money. So it’s actually just cheaper and easier to dump it in a country also like Chile that doesn’t have the sufficient regulations in place.
Mhm. And beyond of course the physical waste present, what are some of the other environmental and perhaps also social impacts of all this clothing being dumped in the desert?
Yeah, so one of the main ways in which fast fashion is just really polluting is that I mean, the garments are made with synthetic materials, and they’re often sprayed with chemicals. And these kinds of clothes can take up to 200 years to biodegrade. So it’s actually as toxic as discarded plastic or tires, which is I think most people assume clothes would dissolve faster, but they don’t.
And the problem is that there’s also no legal structure in place in Chile to dispose of these massive amounts of clothing. So what often happens is that they also get burned, which Angela will talk more about in a bit, which just happened. And this obviously generates incredible environmental hazards, like air pollution and those are kind of health implications.
But obviously, it’s also threatening the ecosystem of the desert, and communities that live really nearby. So in this case, the landfill, as Angela mentioned, it’s located right by Alto Hospicio where about like 120,000 people live and this is also just 10 minutes away from the port where all the clothes come in.
And of course, these are also marginalized communities that are dealing with a dumping ground in their backyard and inhaling the direct toxic gases generated by the decomposing of the clothing. So it’s pretty disastrous in many ways.
For sure. And Angela, could you speak to some of the challenges with regulating these imports and managing all of this clothing waste?
In 2019, a decree was signed that approves the roadmap for a circular economy in Chile from 2020 to 2024. It was powered by the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Economics, and the sustainability and climate change agency. This will be a force that will boost the circular economy for Chile in the future.
Circular Economy constitutes a change in the way that things are consumed and produced to change the linear way that things are happening now of producing, consuming, and then throwing away.
To move forward so that the materials that entered the circular economy are used again and again so that the resources are used in a more conscious way.
Which generates better environmental impacts and even better economic impacts.
Inside this roadmap, there’s some studies developing so their new products are made priorities.
This will make the law that’s called REP includes textile products because those weren’t counted as a priority before.
When the textiles get into the REP law, then the enterprises will make sure the waste of textile is taken care of, reused, or a good way to send them away or discard them.
This law will help a lot in Chile to make responsible the people that are actually responsible.
And make sure that if the industry is inside Chile, and the importing companies take care of the textile waste and older production line.
Mhm. And speaking of brand accountability, Laura, I know that Desierto Vestido and SumOfUs collaborated for an on-the-ground research project to find which brands’ clothing was ending up in the dumps in the Atacama Desert. So can you tell us some of the brands that were found most frequently in these mountains of textile waste?
Yeah, of course. So given how large the piles were of clothing that we found, it was obviously impossible to sort through it all. So a disclaimer that samples were taken at different locations and the dumping ground. So within an hour of sorting through the clothing, these are the brands that we found the most:
So Old Navy was by far the most frequently encountered fashion brand, and then that was followed by H&M, Adidas, Calvin Klein, Wrangler, and Levi’s.
Those were the top ones, but we also found dozens of other brands and I mean, they’re all the brands that most people know, Forever21, Zara, Hugo Boss, Vans, Gap.
I think probably all of us are wearing some piece of clothing from these brands. So we were surprised to find so many, but Old Navy was the top one.
Yeah, that’s interesting. And so these fashion brands are not necessarily the ones directly dumping the waste in the Atacama Desert. Supply chains are very complex. But brands still do hold some responsibility for the situation. So, Angela, could you explain why fashion brands should be held accountable for this clothing waste?
So the REP law is a big part of how to make responsible these brands because they create the garments. So they have to be responsible of the entire production line. They can’t just throw something once or forget about something once they send it away.
But they have to make sure they know where their waste is going and how and where things end up.
So this law is a step toward that — making the brands responsible, especially because most of these garments are made of plastic, which decomposts after a long time — 200 years — so the garments will be there for a long time so they have to be responsible for that.
Mhm. Yeah, they have to be responsible for the full lifecycle of what they’re producing. And then in June, there was a large fire in the Atacama Desert that burned a lot of this clothing. So can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Just right the day of the fires, they were going to their landfills because they check the landfills. And they had a visit planned for that day. And exactly that day, was when the fires happened.
When they got there, the City Hall people were already there. And they had machinery and things kind of ready. So they found this suspicious, they buried a lot of the garments that got burned, and they’re still little specks of garment but everything was burned and buried.
There’s also suspicion because there wasn’t media covering. Desierto Vestido published something about it. But there wasn’t anyone — and there’s a lawsuit against the City Hall…
There was a lawsuit against the municipality and the fires lasted two weeks. And they are really suspicious because of no media coverage. And because they think that they wanted to hide something.
And so just Desierto Vestido and SumofUs covered what happened but after this nobody else thought about it even when it lasted two weeks.
Yeah, that is very convenient timing and suspicious activity, especially with the lack of media coverage as you mentioned. Could you share a bit more of the backstory on that, you know why they might have wanted to cover up the waste crisis in the Atacama Desert specifically in June?
So there was a lawyer that wanted to do an expert report on the zone before the fires. But then a week after, the fires happened. She wanted to go on with a lawsuit to find the responsible people about the filling of the desert with clothes for over 20 years.
It’s been happening and she wanted to find the people responsible about it. But as soon as she wanted to do something about it, the fires happened so they don’t think it’s a coincidence that this happened.
So more than finding the culprits, they want to move forward. They want to make deals with the communes and the government to change this because the community of Alto Hospicio, it’s been too much for them. So they want to move on, and they don’t want to keep leaving with this burden for the community.
They know that there’s people that can change this with their small businesses and with upcycling and recycling, so they understand that there’s a change that can be done but it will just work at the commune, and the government and the community work together.
Yeah. And we definitely will cover some of the solutions that Desierto Vestido and SumOfUs are working on currently.
But first I was wondering if we could talk a little bit more about the impacts of this waste being burned..
So Laura talked about the social and environmental effects of that textile waste in the Atacama Desert, but Angela could you speak to what the ecological and health impacts were of that waste getting burned in the desert in June?
So the clothes come with toxic chemicals, that when they are buried or spend too much time in the ground, they pass these chemicals to the ground. So any living being that was on or under the ground, dies, and it’s very difficult for life to come back. And when they are burned, then these chemicals are released within the fire.
So there’s terrible consequences for people with respiratory issues or illnesses and even the elderly and the kids are at risk. Kids can’t even go out to play on the streets or with their friends because of how much waste there is. Because in the past, the landfills were near the town or the communities but now they’re in the communities.
So it’s impossible for these communities to avoid the waste and the side effects or the immediate effects that when these clothes come with.
Besides the commune, the municipality, they buried the clothes. So they think that this is solving the problem because they don’t see it anymore. But this means only that the pollution is going more in-depth in the ground. So it’s even more difficult to get rid of the effects that the chemicals have in the field, because it’s buried.
Yeah. Wow. So what is the current status or the current state of those areas in the Atacama Desert where the clothing waste was and the communities around it? What does it look like now?
So there are still clothes. Not as much as before, but there are still clothes. They closed the part of that of the desert that is the landfill. But people still go with their cars and leave the clothes beside the fences, and it makes piles of clothing still.
Before there were 100,000 tonnes of clothes and there isn’t anymore because it got burned. But it’s coming back because of how people are still throwing away the clothes, even if it isn’t in the exact landfills. But they just live in the desert now, everywhere in the desert.
And because there isn’t an actual regulation of the REP law, this is still happening. And it won’t stop happening until there are people who are actually enforcing the law.
Yeah. It just sounds like there is a lack of accountability and regulation and enforcement all around.
But I know that Desierto Vestido and SumOfUs are working together to try to change that. You have a campaign right now to demand that the new Chilean President Gabriel Boric, put an end to this textile waste crisis in the Atacama Desert.
So Laura, could you tell us a bit more about this campaign and what its goals are?
Yeah, of course. So we launched this campaign earlier this year. Mostly, when we saw there was a surge of media coverage on the clothes dump and a lot of papers, international papers, were covering this. But what we noticed is that no one was really talking about the brands and just fast fashion and putting it more into context.
And certainly, no one was talking about specific brands or just kind of following the supply chain. So that’s when we partnered with Desierto Vestido and we sent out a team. So Angela went along with other members of Desierto Vestido and we also had a filmmaker. And that’s when we gathered more detailed footage of the clothes and that’s when we saw the specific brands.
So that was part of the campaign. And also the campaign was also launched this year within the context that 2022 could be a pivotal turning point to clean up the fashion industry with the new progressive Chilean President who assumed office in March.
Yeah, Gabriel Boric, has presented himself basically as a stark departure from Chile’s decades of pro-business policies. And he has publicly vowed to prioritize ecology and equality.
So that’s much better than previous presidents. So we also saw this as an opportunity to pressure him to finally regulate the fast fashion industry. But of course, I think the campaign is far from over. And this will continue because there’s no regulation so far.
Yeah well, hopefully 2022 will prove to be a turning point as you hope for the fashion waste crisis in the Atacama Desert.
And just to clarify, have SumOfUs and Desierto Vestido been working to address the waste in the Atacama Desert before this year?
Desierto Vestido has. We haven’t. We also partnered with them because at SumOfUs, we really find it important to work with people and organizations on the ground that have already been doing this work.
So what SumOfUs contributed in a way was giving more international coverage and also leveraging. We do have a membership of millions of people so kind of spotlighting this more but Desierto Vestido has definitely been working on this for a while and I’m sure Angela could share more about it.
Gotcha, yeah. So Angela, you mentioned that this waste crisis in the desert has been going on for 20 years and as Laura just mentioned, Desierto Vestido has been on the ground working to address this issue for a little while as well.
Given that, why do you think that this story was only picked up by mainstream news outlets in late 2021 when the problem has been going on for so much longer than that?
So this has been a silent problem. The authorities say that they’re managing it, but they haven’t. So Desierto Vestido has been advocating for this subject since 2020. Because they’re from the zone — they’re from Catapaka.
And they went to the authorities to demand that this was taken care of. And the authorities said that there was actually a company that was taking care of it, but it was only taking care of the 1% of the waste.
So, when they researched the company, they found out that the CEO made insulating panels from recycled clothes and he said that he was taking care of the entirety of the waste but he was just taking care of the 1%.
When Desierto Vestido found out about the CEO and saw that he wanted to make or that he made already recycled panels, they wanted to ask for a fund from him but Angela says that this was the worst decision asking for this.
So they proposed a project of textile recycle or collecting water because they’re in a desert and he stole the project from them. He moved to Santiago and in his website and his campaigns he presented the project as his but it was Desierto Vestido’s project they proposed to him because they thought that he could help them because he was an enterpriser and the company was already made.
So that they could have the funding for this and they could collaborate in this because it was an advantage for him because he knew how to and for the community because they need the water but he stole the idea and the project and then he moved
So, right when Franklin, the CEO left, a lawsuit started. They wanted to solve the problem but also sue the people responsible for the problem. And he conveniently left like it was convenient for both selling the project and avoiding the lawsuit.
And because of this, they are really disappointed the communities, Desierto Vestido, because they cannot count on the authorities and even people they looked up to and inspired them. Now they see the true colors of these people.
And even though they are disappointed they want to still fight, because for Angela, this is personal. She lives there and she has a child. So she doesn’t want her almost entire life to be the same for her daughter.
Absolutely. And I’m sure that listeners after hearing all of this are wanting to be a part of that fight towards addressing fashion’s waste crisis in the Atacama Desert. So what are some ways that all of us can get involved?
So Angela wants to invite everyone, no matter what part of the world they are from, to think about their purchasing habits.
So when we buy something, it’s because we need it. And this need has to come from a place of knowledge. Know which fabrics, which fibers to choose? Know other alternatives like upcycling or swapping, or buying secondhand, and actually looking at what we’re putting on their bodies.
Because not only because we are wearing them, but because maybe they can end up somewhere else that will damage the land like we saw in the air. So she wants to invite everyone to make conscious decisions.
Yeah definitely. Considering where that garment came from and also where it’s going.
And that was an interesting point about the toxicity of our clothes. We talk about the damage that these toxic materials are doing in the communities where the clothing is being produced, but we also have to think about what the ecological impact is on the communities that have to manage that waste at the end of the garments’ lifecycle. So definitely some food for thought there.
And Laura, is there anything else that you would add to that?
Yeah, I think a lot of it is echoing what Angela said, I mean, it’s consuming responsibly and really educating ourselves on what fast fashion is and the implications of it and the supply chain that’s involved in it.
It’s hard to tell right now how our campaign will continue to evolve. But we might also expand this to two companies themselves. So that could be a potential future opportunity for people to get involved to just make the actual brands accountable for the waste that they’re producing.
And I think for now, in terms of the campaign we have right now with the Chilean President and would be signing and sharing it and just spreading awareness about the issue. Because the media also jumped on this for a few months and then as many other things it just completely it’s off the radar you know.
And as Angela mentioned earlier, there was no coverage on the fire and I mean this is still affecting the communities there. So just continuing to amp up the pressure with the Chilean government for now.
Hmmm yeah, and we will be sure to put the link to that petition to the new Chilean President in the episode description and show notes so everybody listening right now can go ahead and sign that. It takes just takes a few seconds, anyone in the world can sign it, and it can help drive change and support communities like Angelas’ who are facing the brunt of fashion’s waste crisis.
And then also the links to both of your organization’s Instagram accounts — Desierto Vestido and SumOfUs — will be in the episode description as well.
Before we round out this conversation, is there anything else you would like to tell listeners?
So though they feel disappointed, because they wanted to collab with an enterprise and it didn’t go as planned, they still think that collaboration is key to change because it’s a common cause. And there’s power in unity. So they know that a circular economy goes beyond money and economic state.
And the example that Angela puts it’s that they have created a really strong bond with SomeOfUs. And they know because of this, collaboration actually works.
For example, right now, Desierto Vestidio is making a workshop of upcycling from a designer from the community that went to — she went to Kansas to learn about upcycling, and now she’s given the workshop, again, reinforcing the collaboration between Desierto Vestido and other organizations.
Amazing. I love that. Collaboration is so key to driving change. And, Laura, is there anything else that you would like to share with listeners that we haven’t covered yet?
Maybe not. I really loved what Angela said. I mean, I think that’s also part of the work we do at SumOfUs. We really tried to highlight the global aspect of these issues. I think sometimes it’s like you hear about something happening in Chile, and it’s like, how is that relevant to me? You know, I’m so far away from it.
But yeah, I think it’s just kind of learning more about the global structures that are producing this and how and the direct impact you’re having, you know, and you’re buying a t-shirt, which you might not be even aware of, and yeah, and that you’re affecting someone’s daily life.
And yeah, I think that just also echoing the collaborative aspect of it and encouraging people to maybe go beyond what they read on mainstream media and look for organization, local organizations doing this kind of work because they’re the ones experiencing the reality like Desierto Vestido, so we were very fortunate that we were able to have this partnership.
And that is *almost* a wrap for this episode. So you all know that I always ask guests at the end what a better future for fashion would look like to them. And for this interview, there were some audio issues at the end so I’ll just share a bit about what Angela shared.
Angela was saying that a better future for fashion is one that manages its waste better, and changes its designs to incorporate waste so that designers see the solution in the problem. (Which I couldn’t have said it better myself! I think that is beautiful.)
And Angela also continued that designs in fashion can be improved so that there isn’t any waste — in the meantime, it’s important that we find ways to use waste in designs. And that’s what Desierto Vestido is doing — making people aware of the waste and of all of the things that can be done with this waste, perhaps before it’s even waste.
So I hope that you found this episode as powerful and informative as I did. And that it inspired you towards activating change. The link to sign the petition to Chilean president Gabriel Boric is in the show notes.
And an action that I would add is to start asking questions to charity shops, textile recyclers, and fashion brands with take-back programs. We need more transparency in the secondhand clothing trade and in this “circular” fashion movement.
We can’t just take it at face value when there’s a textile recycling bin or a big fashion brand advertising a take-back program and you can get 20% off if you send in your old stuff. Just as brands aren’t transparent about how and where their clothes are being made, we also know that fashion brands are not being transparent about where these clothes that they’re taking back are going either.
And while we can definitely do our part in being more thoughtful about how we re-home our clothing personally, and that’s an important step. I would say the first step. If it’s not something that you’ve considered before, I invite you to start to think about that.
And instead of just putting a bunch of clothing in a garbage bag and dropping it off at a charity shop, really trying to mindfully rehome pieces and trying to recirculate them locally since the global secondhand trade is really exploitative and completely opaque, really.
So that said, of course, the most reliable way of actually being able to hold these mega-corporations and huge charities (that in some cases operate as corporations) to account is legislation for things like reducing overproduction (fashion brands shouldn’t be able to produce that much stuff!)
Also not allowing or restricting secondhand exports that get dumped on other countries. Because we know that the countries receiving these imports, some of them have tried to ban the imports from the Global North and unfortunately were unable to do so. Listen to episode 31 for more on that.
But in terms of legislation also investing more in circular practices like mending & repair, secondhand & swapping, upcycling, and real textile recycling machinery as a last resort if those other options are not possible.
So that was a lot. But really we have to start at the source and just significantly reduce production. Like if we do one thing, that’s what it should be.
I mean, if you think about, if you have a leak in your house and it’s flooded with water, what do you do first? Do you take buckets of water and scoop the water on the floor and dump it out the window, or do you find the source of the leak and stop that first if you can? You can take the buckets of water and take them out but if the water is still coming out, it’s not really helping that much.
And that’s basically what we have with fashion’s waste crisis, right? There’s a lot of talk about textile recycling machinery and this recycled material, and this recycled material. That’s fine, that’s good but if we’re not addressing overproduction, that stuff is not solving the problem because you’re just creating more of the problem as your somewhat creating the solution. So I think getting to the source, stopping the overproduction has got to be the first step!
But I seem to be going on a lot of rants in this episode.
For more on the complexities of the secondhand clothing trade, tune in to episode 31 with Nikissi Serumaga, who is the co-host of VINTAGE OR VIOLENCE, and you’ll hear Nikissi unpack the reality of secondhand clothes in Uganda. So that is episode 31.
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