Desert runway show sheds light on fashion waste in Chile

Atacama Fashion Week

Atacama Fashion Week

In clothing created from fashion waste, Sadlin Charles, walks on the soil of the fashion show in the Atacama desert of Chile, which took place in the middle of the "mountains" of waste that have been created over the years by various fashion houses.

Model Sadlin Charles

Charles' clothes were made from pieces of debris, which are so numerous and large that they can be seen from space. Almost all of this waste comes from distant countries, including the USA, China, South Korea and Britain, writes "The Guardian".

Parade in the Atacama

60 thousand tons of used clothes are taken to Chile every year. According to the latest figures from the United Nations, Chile is the world's third largest importer of second-hand clothing. Some of these clothes are sold in second-hand markets, but at least 39 thousand tons of these clothes end up as illegal waste in the Atacama desert. The desert is one of the most popular places in the world as a tourist destination, famous for its beauty, but for those who live near the waste, it has become a depressing place.

Textile waste in the Atacama

"This country is being used as a sacrificial area of ​​the world, where garbage from many countries of the world is collected and ends up in the municipality of Alto Hospicio", said Angela Astudillo, co-founder of the non-governmental organization, Desierto Vestido (Dressed Desert), which has aim to raise awareness about the damage caused to the environment by clothing waste.

She says that this is creating stigma for them because her country has become one of the most polluted in the world. Astudillo lives near what she describes as a "27-minute drive" to one of the 160 landfills in the area, and often finds herself amid the smoke and flames lit to burn clothes.

"It is very painful because this has been happening for a long time now and the people who live here have nothing to do because it puts us at risk. The only thing we can do is to denounce what is happening here", said Astudillo.

In order to highlight this kind of powerlessness, her organization has teamed up with the fashion activist movement, Fashion Revolutin Brazil, and partnered with a Brazilian advertising agency to stage a fashion show in the midst of trash, in order to to raise awareness of the reality of what is happening in that country and illustrate what can be created from that waste.

Collection of Maya Ramos

Maya Ramos, a designer and artist from Sao Paolo, Brazil, designed the collection that was worn by eight Chilean models in the fashion show held in April, called Atacama Fashion Week 2024. 

Plans for a similar event in 2025 are underway.

The collection of Maja Ramos

From afar, Ramos gave Astudillo instructions on what pieces of clothing to collect from the trash to fit her collection's theme of the four elements: earth, fire, air and water. She then went to the Atacama Desert to sew clothes for the upcoming fashion show, and spent 24 hours cutting and sewing by hand the scraps of textiles Astudillo had collected.

"People are living in poverty and it is insecure. The situation is urgent. The thing is that this is not only about the problem of fashion chains, but also social ones. People, through the lack of natural products, are consuming more than they need at an unbridled pace," explained Ramos.

The collection of Maja Ramos

On average, each consumer now buys 60% more clothes than they did 20 years ago, and 92 million tons of textile waste is created every year.

According to the United Nations, the fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world, responsible for polluting 20% ​​of the planet's water and 10% of greenhouse gas emissions.

While many cheap clothes are produced between the changes made by fashion trends, the production volume increases, the quality decreases and the waste accumulates even more.

A popular way to dispose of unused clothing is to donate it to charity, but the problem lies in the inability to cope with large quantities. Many of these donations end up in various places around the world as piles of clothing where markets are held for the purchase of second-hand clothing.

Shocking scenes of textile waste collection in Northern Chile have attracted much attention in recent years and continue to do so. In 2023, footage of the discarded clothes there as seen from space has gone viral.

The city of Iquique, located in northern Chile, is home to one of the most important duty-free ports in South America.

In Chile, it is forbidden to dispose of textile waste in legal landfills because it damages the soil, so items that are not sold are destined for the desert.

The brands most likely to be found in these heaps on the sand are Zara, H&M, Calvin Klein, Levi's, Wrangler, Nike and Adidas. Most of them are made of polyester, a plastic-based material that cannot decompose for more than 200 years. When these clothes burn, they emit toxins that harm the soil, the ozone, and the health of the population living nearby.
Astudillo said that local authorities have introduced a penalty of 180 pesos (150 British pounds) for people who fight by throwing garbage in the desert. But she also said that the authorities only monitor the areas that are inhabited, issue some penalties and littering continues unabated.

The state has implemented the law on production responsibility, which was established within the waste management law, making importers responsible for the waste they produce. However, clothing and textiles are still not included there.

Meanwhile, the clothes arrive and the waste continues to grow.