The arid lands of the Atacama desert, in northern Chile, have become the setting for an image that seems to be taken from a science fiction novel. In them you can find mountains of second-hand clothes that came from the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia, were discarded for resale and ended up in that open-air landfill emitting toxic gases as they decompose. A true symbol of how throwaway society and extreme consumerism are damaging the planet. And also of inequality: to that place plagued by those who some discarded, others arrive in search of clothes to wear or resell and earn a living.
This clandestine dump has been built up from the discards of the 59,000 tons of clothing that arrive each year in Chile —the largest importer of second-hand clothing in Latin America— through the free zone of the port of Iquique, 1,800 kilometers to the north of Santiago. Most are used items, but there are also some with tags attached.
Reports on the textile industry have exposed the high cost of fast fashion, with underpaid workers, claims of child labor and deplorable conditions for mass production. Added to this today are devastating figures on its immense environmental impact, comparable to that of the oil industry. According to a 2019 UN study, the production of clothing in the world doubled between 2000 and 2014, which has made it clear that it is an industry “responsible for 20% of the total waste of water globally”. In addition, the manufacture of clothing and footwear generates 8% of greenhouse gases.
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