Story at a glance
- Of the 59,000 tons of clothing that arrive at Chile’s Iquique port annually, at least 39,000 tons cannot be sold and end up in landfills.
- Clothing that’s made from synthetic materials or treated with chemicals can take 200 years to biodegrade.
- The fashion industry is responsible for 8 to 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.
Fast fashion has created mountains of sweaters, boots and other discarded clothing in Chile’s Atacama desert, polluting the environment through carbon emissions and water.
A Venezuelan migrant searches a rubbish dump for clothes for her and her children in the Alto Hospicio area, on the outskirts of Iquique, Chile, on September 26, 2021. (MARTIN BERNETTI/Getty)
Around 59,000 tons of clothing arrive annually at Chile’s Iquique port, which is typically made in China or Bangladesh and passes through Europe, Asia or the U.S. before making landfall in Chile. From there, the clothing is resold around Latin America.
However, only a fraction of the clothes that end up in Chile are bought locally, at least 39,000 tons of it cannot be sold and ends up in landfills in the surrounding desert area of Iquique port.
According to Agence France-Presse (AFP), Franklin Zepeda, the founder of EcoFibra, a company that makes insulation panels using discarded clothing, said "The problem is that the clothing is not biodegradable and has chemical products, so it is not accepted in the municipal landfills."
Clothing created with synthetic materials or treated with chemicals can take 200 years to biodegrade and is as toxic as discarded tires or plastics.
In 2019, the UN found that the fashion industry was responsible for 8 to 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. That’s more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. The industry also generates around 20 percent of the world’s wastewater and releases half a million tons of synthetic microfibers into the ocean annually.
The UN report went on to say that the average consumer bought 20 percent more clothing in 2019 than they did 15 years ago, only keeping each clothing item for half as long.
However, one British fashion designer is attempting to change the course of the fashion industry’s history of pollution, with Stella McCartney calling for more government regulation over the fashion industry during the COP26 global climate summit happening in Glasgow.
McCartney told Forbes, “Fast-fashion [brands] obviously need to reduce what they produce. I want to show my industry that you can have a business model in working in a cleaner, more sustainable way. You don't have to kill and don't have to cut down rainforests, and you can have a sexy, well-designed, lasting, beautiful bag. I'm here to show that you can still make money.”
Another retailer trying to reverse the trends of fast fashion is outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia. In an effort to push consumers to extend the life of their clothing, Patagonia introduced a program called Worn Wear in 2018. Consumers can trade-in an old Patagonia item for credit towards a new purchase on a used or new garment.
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