From Attire to Ashes: Clothing Waste in the Atacama Desert

In Chile’s Atacama Desert, there are mountains of unwanted clothes from brands like Nike, Old Navy, Hugo Boss, and even Chanel. Photographer Naguel Rivero and stylist Stephania Yepes reimagine the real-life effects of the fashion industry’s systemic overproduction of goods.

The Atacama Desert in Chile has for years been home to mountains upon mountains of discarded clothes—60,000 tons to be precise. Now, after a fire swept through the region, all that’s left is ashes.

 

With hindsight, it seems inevitable that flames would eventually engulf a landfill made of mostly flammable materials like cotton, polyester blends, rayon, and acrylic, often tinged with synthetic dyes. Moreover, increasing temperatures and worsening water shortages in the world’s driest desert created the ideal conditions for a fire to spread. In June, 2022, what emerged was a social and environmental catastrophe as toxic gases caused by melting plastics were released into the atmosphere, contaminating large swathes of areas surrounding Iquique and forcing citizens to stay indoors as teams clad in hazmat suits attempted to contain the situation.

 

But the Atacama Desert has, of course, been a polluting hazard for long before the fire broke out—the origins of which are still under investigation. Garments regardless of condition were routinely dumped with no intention of repurpose or resale. In fact, an investigation conducted by SumOfUs and local group Desierto Vestido shed light on the numerous well-known brands whose clothes were frequently found amid the piles of waste, some of which include Old Navy, Nike, H&M, Adidas, Zara, Hollister, and Levi’s. And it wasn’t just garments from high street brands that were uncovered at Atacama Desert; entire ensembles by the likes of Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss, and even Chanel were also discovered at the dumping site.

 

Most of these garments are unworn. For context, only 15% of the clothes that come through the Iquique port have previously been purchased, which means the remaining 85% of garments are brand new.

“It’s no coincidence that the brands that we’re often calling on, who are lagging in terms of garment worker protections, are these same brands that the tags are showing up in the dumping sites,” said Emily Stochl, advocacy manager at Remake, a nonprofit dedicated to driving change in the clothing industry, as part of the organization’s community panel. “These are all brands that we have campaigned to. And much like we’re calling on legal protections for garment makers who make our clothing, we are also calling for legal protections for the waste that is produced as well.”

 

The reality is that the Atacama Desert is the last stop of a long, complex, and mostly opaque supply chain, one that is riddled with exploitative labor practices and human rights violations. Large portions of the clothes are made in garment factories or sweatshops across the Global South where workers overwhelmingly endure long shifts for low pay, before being shipped to Europe and the United States. Discarded or unwanted clothes are then sent off to—among other places—Chile, the largest importer of secondhand clothing in Latin America.

 

It’s a cycle based in colonial power dynamics that must be stopped at the source, namely with the brands that continue to export waste only to mass produce collections of new products in an endless loop.

 

“We have a golden opportunity to use our time to make sure there are regulations put in place to prevent more dumping sites, because [in the Atacama Desert] they’ve already seen more clothes being dumped [since the fire],” said SumOfUs campaigner Alys Samson, calling on Chilean President Gabriel Boric to ban more landfills and micro-dumps across the country. “So, although the dumping site has disappeared [for now], it’s going to start growing again very quickly.”

 

For Atmos, photographer Naguel Rivero partnered with stylist Stephania Yepes to draw attention to the detrimental effects of the fashion industry’s systemic overproduction of goods. The idea was to create—in Rivero’s words—a series of “monsters” made from mindless overconsumption and a total disregard for nature. The shoot was created using discarded or unwanted clothes.

Photography Naguel Rivero Photography Assistants Jaime Salom, Louie; Häre Christian Styling Stephania Yepes Styling Assistants Sebastián Cameras, Badreddine Ben Messaoud Models Gabrielle, Saron, Jorel, Badreddine, Sebastián, Ben, Samantha at Isla Management Post-Production Alejandra Gimenez Production Lock


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