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Fast Fashion - Dumped in Chile's Atacama Desert

May 31, 2022

Huge heaps of used and unsold clothes have piled up in the Atacama desert in Chile in recent years. A symbol of the hidden cost of fast fashion, they show the industry's disastrous environmental impact.


Manuela Olivos lives in a hut surrounded by mountains of discarded clothes. She makes a living from this vast, fast-fashion dumping ground in the Atacama desert in northern Chile, collecting anything that she can sell. Much of it is unsold clothing from first-world countries, where the demands of the fast fashion industry have resulted in chronic over-production. The garments that end up here are usually made of synthetic fabrics that are non-biodegradable. 

The desert dumping ground is an embarrassment to the authorities in nearby Alto Hospicio. Edgar Ortega works in the city’s environmental department, and says he’s powerless to do anything about it. New shipments of used clothing arrive at the dumping ground every week. "The business with used clothing is highly lucrative for dealers in the free trade zone of Iquique, who import secondhand textiles," he says. "But only for them. It’s detrimental to the wider community."

Iquique, the provincial capital, used to be economically depressed. But then the Chilean government built a container port here and created the free trade zone known as "Zofri". 59,000 tonnes of used clothes are shipped here every year. According to estimates, up to 40 % of that is dumped - and ends up in the desert. 

Many of the people who sift through the mountains of discarded clothes are refugees from Venezuela. They’re looking for clothes they can wear themselves and for anything they can sell. We meet André and his family, who are braving the midday heat on their way to Iquique, where they hope to find work. They still have another 200 kilometers to go and are exhausted. 

Like many other Venezuelan refugees, they could well end up making a living from the mountains of textiles in the Atacama’s desert’s cemetery for used clothes.

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