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I. Introduction

During the 1990’s a new movement was born, retailers began to sell trendy, poorly made and cheap clothes as an answer to the vertiginous advance of fashion.

At some point, this new business model allowed more population to have access to new and stylish clothes, bringing fashion closer. But, at the same time, initiated another way to pollute our environment and to exploit labor in third-world countries, moving the consequences from the Global North to the Global South.

Is in this context that today I will introduce the big problem that Chile is living, specifically, the dumping grounds created on the Atacama Desert.

II. Fast fashion industry

The terminology was coined by The New York Times at the beginning of the 90’s, to describe how Zara, the giant from Spain, landed on the United States promising a 15-day process from the design stage to the selling stage in stores.

But how has it emerged? During the 1990s and 2000s fast fashion industries took over and started to reproduce the high fashion styles in a cheaper and more quick way. As I referred before, this allowed more people to have access to the last trends and be capable of acquire clothes that before was not possible. Most of these brands were created during the 1950’s and 1960’s in their respective countries, but along the decades and the new technologies that permitted to replace high quality materials with cheaper alternatives, principally, polyester, and to transfer the human labor and costs to lower range countries, these same brands initiated an expansion process, being now present in almost every city in the world.

The impacts of this newly businesses are enormous, going from the environmental pollution, affecting fauna and flora, to exploitation of labor in Global South countries.

First of all, has a human cost, which translates into labor exploitation.

On April 24th, 2013, the Rana Plaza building located in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed. This tragedy became public the exploitation situation that lots of civilians from that country were living. The building housed several shops, a bank and garment factories. The day before the disaster, structural cracks were discovered, so all the people working there were evacuated, but on the 24th, the ones who worked to the garment factories had been obligated to return and work anyways. As a result, 1.134 people died and thousands more were injured.

After the Rana Plaza disaster, the society could new exactly the reality of Global South countries where the fashion industries were acting. Nevertheless, does the situation change? Until today, the garment industry is to blame regarding high rates of modern slavery and even, child exploitation.

According to ILO, between March 2018 and February 2023, 160 million children aged 5-17 are engaged in child labour. 92.2 million come is to be found in Africa, and 48.7 million in Asia and the Pacific. Unicef reported that in the fashion industry, children work in the whole chain of supply, from the production of cotton seed and yarn spinning to the phases of putting garments together, as the case of Bangladesh.

Sadly, not only children’s rights are affected, but the same thing also happens regarding women’s rights. For example, as ILO has reported, in Bangladesh the garment sector was USD 42.6 billion industry in-between 2021-22, “that accounted for about 82% of the country’s total export revenue. There are around 4 million garment workers, representing a sizeable part of the country’s 69 million total labour force. In 2018, it was estimated that 60.5% of garment workers were women.”

The transferring the industries from European or North American headquarters to lower range countries, meant the transferring of risks, health issues, and slavery to these countries. The brands contract with national entrepreneurs, and these are the ones who recruit workers and apply its national labour law; a framework that does not protect or recognized strong legal limitations. The problem is that the international brand, lower its costs of production, and as is not itself the one in charge of the workers, is not accountable for any of the violations of human rights.

In a second place, the environmental impact. Fast fashion industry means today the second source of pollution and greenhouse emissions in the world. To create cheaper clothes, it is necessary to use cheaper materials, with higher concentration of chemicals, in the majority polyester, a material derived from fossil fuels, contributing to global warming, and leaving microfibers that help the increase of plastics and microplastics in the oceans.

On the other hand, according to the 2019 UN study, for the elaboration of one pair of jeans it’s needed 7.500 liters of water; the wearing sector uses an amount of 93.000 millions of cubic meters of water per year, which can allow the survival of 5 million people around the world; the industry is responsible for the 20% of global water waste, and for the 8% of greenhouse emissions. As it can be seen, fast fashion not only affects the environment itself, but contributes with the hydric crisis that we are experiencing.

As I said, the results, both social and environmental, are manifesting more in the South than the North Globe, and one of the cases is what is happening in Chile.

III. Fashion graveyard

The Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth, with an extension of 300 hectares, it goes from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes Mountains, through 1600 kilometers.  It has been recognized as a wonderful landscape, perfect zone for astronomic observation and a bast ecosystem, but, in the last 15 years, it has been affected by the dumping of 39.000 tons of wasted clothes coming from United States, Europe and Asia, yearly.

Chile is the country in charge of the 90% of secondhand clothes importations in the continent, this is a result of the broad and almost inexistent regulations regarding the importations control.

Clothes that are not sold in Europe, United States or Japan, are imported to Chile, and arrive to Iquique, a northern city taxes-free, and the principal door for products that come from all around the globe.

Here, import companies select and decide what clothes are in good conditions to be sold inside the country or contraband to the borders, and which ones are not. The latter are the ones that end up wasted in the desert, because is not possible for the city and customs to return them back.

According to the environmental agent of the Alto Hospicio Municipality -the zone where the biggest landfills are- at least 60% of the clothes end up wasted, because couldn’t be sold in Santiago or couldn’t be sent to the border countries.

The problem is that, as it was mentioned, the clothes is composed by polyester. This material, unlike organic ones, is non-biodegradable, it starts to melt and ground into the land, polluting with micro plastics, affecting the environment and the quality life of humans.

The contamination not only is produced in the desert, but because of the geography of the land, strong gusts of wind also carry the particles all over the country, finishing them on rivers, lakes, and the ocean.

Do we have solutions to this problem? Experts have pointed out as possible solutions, educate people regarding the impacts in fast fashion, so initiate with a more conscious consumption of clothes. At the national level, the implementation of a more updated laws that regulate producer’s liability and limit the imports from other countries. Moreover, the implementation of recycling policies are important to overcome from this situation.

As for now, tons of clothes are waiting to be incinerated or to melt into the desert.

IV. References:,became%20cheap%2C%20convenient%20and%20consumable.


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