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Atacama fashion week spotlights the desert’s devastation

A staggering 60,000 tonnes of used clothing is shipped to Chile each year, 65% of which is illegally dumped in the Atacama desert. To raise awareness about how this is affecting the land and its people, activists and designers organised an event amid the trash.

By now, I’m sure you’re well-aware that the world is literally drowning in clothes.

Though recycling programmes have existed for decades, with little means of recycling jeans or dresses, of the 100 billion garments bought annually, 92 million tonnes of them get thrown out. By just 2030, that figure is expected to increase by over forty million.

Yet global production continues to surge, doubling between 2000 and 2014 (according to The Economist), as does rampant consumption, with the average consumer purchasing 60% more clothes annually and keeping them for half as long as they did 15 years ago.

It’s an environmental disaster that, despite numerous COP summits and IPCC reports urging the industry to change its ways – and change them soon – shows no signs of abating.

Namely due to the fact that the world’s driest desert (and one of the most inhospitable places on Earth) has become a swiftly swelling graveyard of fast-fashion lines past.

Located in Chile, the arid Atacama is increasingly suffering from pollution, habitat loss, and water contamination as a direct result of our obsession with following trends.

According to the latest UN figures, Chile is the third largest importer of secondhand clothes in the world.

The country, which has long been a hub of secondhand clothing made in Asia and passed through Europe, sees some 60,000 tonnes of unwanted garments arrive each year at its northern Iquique port to be sold throughout Latin America.

Almost all of this waste has come from countries thousands of miles away, including the US, China, South Korea, and the UK.

What isn’t bought or smuggled – a staggering 65% to be exact, the equivalent to the weight of nearly 27,000 compact cars in scrapped fabric – finds its way to Atacama, ending up in rubbish piles you could easily mistake for sand dunes.

These mountains of illegally-dumped trash (it’s forbidden to dump textiles in legal landfills because it generates soil instability) are so vast they can even be seen from space.

‘This place is being used as a global sacrifice zone where waste from different parts of the world arrives and ends up around the municipality of Alto Hospicio,’ Ángela Astudillo, co-founder of Desierto Vestido, an NGO aiming to shine a light on this issue, told the Guardian.

‘It builds up in different areas, is incinerated, and also buried.’

Seeking to raise awareness about how the devastation is affecting the land and its people, Astudillo’s organisation teamed up with activism movement, Fashion Revolution Brazil, and advertising agency, Artplan, to organise Atacama Fashion Week.

The show was livestreamed on the event’s official website, featuring influencers’ commentary on sustainability and information for the general public on how to get involved with demanding accountability and robust commitments from brands, as well as more policies from governments.

‘We decided to bring a hallmark of fashion – a beautiful show – to a place that is a disgrace to fashion and humanity: a garbage dump in the middle of a planetary treasure,’ said Artplan’s CCO’s, Rodrigo Almeida, Rafael Gil, and Marcello Noronha in a statement.

‘Turning Atacama into a trend show for the circular economy envisions the consumption of the future. Amidst the models, catwalks, and flashbulbs, there is a powerful discourse of environmental and public health emergency. Destroying the planet must go out of style.’

Eight models traversed a catwalk of sand amid the castoffs, draped in a collection made from items found in the surrounding heaps which were designed by visual artist, Maya Ramos.

Each outfit symbolised different types of pollution and the impact on the environment.

‘People there are living in poverty and it’s precarious. The situation is one of urgency,’ Ramos told the Guardian.

‘The problem is more than fashion and the supply chain. It’s a societal problem. People, through a lack of connection with nature, are consuming more than they need at an unbridled pace.’

What she’s referring to here, is the ‘racism and colonialism in systems that sees products being consumed in the global north and discarded in the global south,’ with the most vulnerable populations facing the worst repercussions of this.

‘We need systemic change,’ adds Ramos. She hopes (as does Astudillo) that Atacama Fashion Week will encourage more people in power to realise this and take the necessary action to make it happen before it’s too late.

‘We needed to do something big to draw the attention of all those involved in the silent crisis so that we could discuss a solution,’ says Astudillo.

‘Atacama can’t wait any longer.’