In this week's episode, ‘Ropa Americana’, we’re tackling fast fashion on the move. Chile’s Atacama desert has become a fashion graveyard for the world’s unwanted clothes. Every year, nearly 59,000 tons of clothing arrive in Chile’s Iquique port from Europe, Asia, and the United States. Some of it is redistributed and sold throughout Chile, but the vast majority remains in Atacama.
Santiago-based circular economy expert Marcela Godoy shares the hard truth behind the underbelly of fast fashion and how plastic clothing is destroying the driest desert in the world.
You can learn more about what’s happening in Atacama on Al Jazeera, BBC News, and EcoWatch. To follow Marcela’s work, check out ADC Circular and StgSlow.
The apparel industry is the second-largest polluter in the world (second only to oil) and contributes 10% of global carbon emissions. For a deeper understanding of the fast fashion industry, plastic pollution, and its impact on the planet, visit Changing Markets Foundation Fossil Fashion Series and Eureka Recycling’s Best Practices for Textile Collection.
As Marcela mentioned on the show, an organization called Desierto Vestido (Desert Dress) conducted an assessment of the brands found in Atacama - including H&M, Old Navy, and Adidas. You can watch the action on Instagram.
MARCELA GODOY, SOUND BYTE [00:00]: My message in everything is: consumption is a political act. As consumers, we have the power to change the system.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY - Host [00:17]: If you've been tuning into this season, you know, we've been investigating the underbelly of illegal dumping across the world. One of the stories that piqued our team's interest started with a jarring image of miles and miles of clothes planted in the middle of a Chilean desert. We had to know what the heck was going on and tracked down Santiago-based fast fashion and circular economy expert Marcela Godoy to give us the facts. In this week's episode, “Ropa Americana,” we're tackling fast fashion on the move.
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NEWS CLIP [00:56]: Fashion is big business.
NEWS CLIP [00:59]: These days, the newest styles and clothes are cheaper than ever. You can literally snag a dress for four bucks.
NEWS CLIP [01:05]: Of course, Americans buy about five times more clothing than they did back in 1980. And one study suggests we wear each item an average of – just listen to this –
NEWS CLIP [01:14]: They may seem like great deals, but there is a high cost to fast fashion.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [01:23]: Chile's Atacama Desert has become a fast fashion graveyard for the world's unwanted clothes. Every year, nearly 59,000 tonnes of secondhand and even brand new clothing arrive from Europe, Asia and the United States. Some of it is redistributed and sold throughout Chile, but the vast majority remains in Atacama, since no government is willing to pay for its disposal. I asked Marcela to give us a bit of history on what's happening in her country.
MARCELA GODOY [01:53]: The access to fashion was only for few once: the people that has the money. That's the truth. That was in seventies and eighties. So when fast fashion came into Chile, it changed everything because everyone has that access. But it's very, very quick, you know. The clothes, you can have a dress for around three months and then you have to throw away. Here in Chile, we lost our identity mainly because of the fast fashion and because we are, I think, that's my opinion, the country in Latin America that is- has been more influenced by globalization.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [02:33]: That makes a lot of sense. And when the clothing came from China, what's the material it was made of?
MARCELA GODOY [02:41]: Polyester and acrylic and other kind of materials, but most of them are plastic.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [02:49]: A lot of people don't know clothes are actually made of plastic.
MARCELA GODOY [02:53]: This is something that people lost, like lost a lot of knowledge, things that have to be with your health and your lifestyle. Something that the people lost is how to learn the labels, you know, the tags.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [03:12]: What Marcela just said is really important. Think about it like this. It's like reading food labels. We try our best to purchase foods that are safer, healthier, and pose less harm to the environment. And here's a good time to mention this too: Polyester, nylon, acrylic, and other synthetic fibers are all forms of plastic and are roughly 60% of the material that makes up our clothing worldwide.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [03:43]: So this is legally happening. Chile is legally allowing the importation of these secondhand clothes?
MARCELA GODOY [03:50]: Yeah, because in the beginning, this is a very old law that comes from the 1670. And the beginning they said to bring to tailor the best clothes for poor people.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [04:02]: It was under the guise of donations, right?
MARCELA GODOY [04:05]: Because we were very poor and the solution was, okay, we have we can receive textiles from other countries. But now that the fast fashion is here, the people don't buy the secondhand clothes.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [04:21]: So now are they coming in under the guise of donations?
MARCELA GODOY [04:25]: You can find clothes with the tags on new.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [04:29]: That's crazy.
MARCELA GODOY [04:30]: Because that means that it fails in the value chains of clothes.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [04:36]: So that companies are also involved with dumping.
MARCELA GODOY [04:40]: Of course.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [04:44]: What started in the seventies as an opportunity to help the poor in an already poor country has turned into a sacrifice zone for the world's unwanted clothes. If you're new to the term ‘sacrifice zone,’ it's a geographic hotspot for toxic pollution located in lower income communities of color. When considering Atacama, the clothing typically arrives at the Iquique port in the Alto Hospicio free zone in northern Chile. Clothing merchants from the capital Santiago, about a thousand miles to the south, buy some of this, but it's mostly smuggled out to other Latin American countries. The remaining 39,000 tons end up dumped in the desert.
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MARCELA GODOY [05:28]: There is no regulation regarding to quantity and quality of textiles that enter to the country through the free zone.
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So at the beginning was for people that doesn't have access to good quality clothes. In Chile in the winter, it's very cold, so this is the reason clothes came from Europe, mainly, and United States. But right now we import and actually we are the largest importer in Latin America, and the clothes come from the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia as well.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY [06:07]: Let's imagine somebody who has never seen Atacama in the news. And if they were to arrive with you in Atacama, what would they see?
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MARCELA GODOY [06:22]: The landscape in the Atacama Desert is amazing. It's really, really, really beautiful. I thought it’s the most arid in the world. It's just really full and plenty of biodiversity.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [06:40]: Being in California, I kept thinking about Joshua Tree. It's where two distinct desert ecosystems come together: the Mojave and the Colorado. I couldn't fathom this beloved ecosystem being destroyed by unwanted clothes, and also realizing how much privilege we have as a wealthier nation where we're doing the exporting. In addition to destroying the Atacama ecosystem, it's harming people too.
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MARCELA GODOY [07:08]: So the problem that is very close to a little town named Alto Hospicio, which is a very vulnerable place in the area. It’s a sacrifice zone. There is a mining zone and there is a lot of agro industry. I don't know who is doing this, but there are people that burn it in free spaces.
We have to start to prevent the garbage. We have to minimize the garbage that we generate. You know, it's not- this is not the solution.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [07:41]: Is it happening at night?
MARCELA GODOY [07:43]: Maybe. Yeah, maybe. I don't know who is doing it and why. Because the people in Alto Hospicio say that this is one of the biggest problem associated to this dump break. Air contamination is pretty bad for the people. I've been in Alto Hospicio for work. It's a little town, very poor. And then you make these big cars because there's another kind of people that works in the mining industry that have a lot of money. The dumping site around 10 minutes from this place.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY [08:29]: Who is responsible on the import side?
MARCELA GODOY [08:32]: We have two responsibilities here. We have- the responsibility lies with the company. The companies that import the clothes are companies that works in this industry, in the secondhand industry. Companies here in Thailand import these clothes, and there is no regulations for the kind of clothes that get in. That's the problem. And this is the responsibility is of the government. But the local government is very aware about this problem and they are fighting with the people, you know, together to find a solution.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [09:08]: Okay. So I'm going to break it down a little bit more to provide some context.
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The clothing from Asia, Europe, and the United States that enter Chile is classified into three categories. First, the new clothing and clothing considered to be in good enough condition get picked up by the merchants in Iquique, a port city where the clothes first arrive next. The nicer, gently used clothing is picked up locally and by nearby towns and then distributed to secondhand shops. Finally, a third party distributor picks up what's left over and sells it to people that can't afford or access the first two categories.
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MARCELA GODOY [09:48]: So the- the clothes that it doesn't fit in these three categories are finished. You know, it's living in the desert illegally because everything that we're talking about when they leave their clothes as a garbage is treated as garbage. It’s pretty close. It's around 10 minutes of the port or a half an hour, and nobody's there. It's the desert.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY [10:19]: Sort of out of sight, out of mind, but not for the people that live there and probably have to smell it and witness the burning and all of the toxic contamination.
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MARCELA GODOY [10:29]: There is an investigation that an activist group named Desierto Vestido. They took some samples of clothes in the different locations in the dumps. They made this exercise during one hour. How many brands they could find in these samples that they found? Mostly Old Navy, followed by H&M, Adidas, and Levi's.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [11:00]: These are also brands that have other supply chain issues when it comes to workers’ rights, other humanitarian issues. Are these brands responding to the findings?
MARCELA GODOY [11:12]: The brands didn't say anything. When we call companies to take responsibility so that they don't end as a garbage because we think that the greatest, the greatest value that brands have today is reputation. So showing them to the world is the best way to make them to take action.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [11:35]: While hearing Marcela’s story, this was an obvious indication of transboundary environmental crime, meaning there's many governments and countries involved while causing massive amounts of pollution and harming nearby communities. So let's hear how we make this relevant for the everyday consumer, which is all of us.
MARCELA GODOY [11:56]: To decrease the consumption that people buy in fast fashion, because they want to have ten or 100 t-shirts, you know. It's not only with the fashion. It’s everything. It’s something very cultural because the people like to buy because they feel good buying.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [12:14]: We're not really looking at clothes as plastic, though. And how do we reframe the dialogue that actually this t-shirt is just as bad as single-use plastic?
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MARCELA GODOY [12:26]: So if you don't change the production system, it's very difficult that you can change the consumption system and vice versa. My message in everything is that consumption is a political act. As consumers, we have the power to change the system. The companies want change. If the consumers doesn't ask the change. I would like to see a society that is aware about the climate crisis and has the tool to be prepared for the coming problems that we have.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [13:07]: What's so problematic about fast fashion is that the clothing is made of plastic. Plastics never fully biodegrade. Instead, they break down into microplastics, tiny particles so small they are in evaporated water that rains down all over the planet. Just think about that for a second. When it comes to our clothing obsession, the problem of microplastics will only increase. Furthermore, PET plastic, also known as polyester, is made from fossil carbon extracted by fracking for natural gas and drilling for crude oil. The polyester manufacturing and disposal processes create toxins and drive the climate crisis. Let's hear from Marcela.
MARCELA GODOY [13:55]: The clothes that is made of plastic like polyester, every time you wash it, you let go, now you release a lot of microplastic that comes from the fibers in your clothes, littles ones. And that contaminates the water.
CLIP WITH MUSIC [14:17]: Recycled polyester does nothing to solve other problems of plastic fashion, such as microfiber pollution, meaning billions of tiny plastic particles still end up polluting the ocean and our bodies through the air we breathe and the food we eat. Instead of tackling microplastic pollution at source by reducing reliance on synthetic fibers, brands choose to greenwash recycled synthetics as one of the solutions for dumping microplastics.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [14:40]: Dumping. Microplastics. Human health. Toxic contamination. Yes, there is a lot of heaviness when tackling such complex and intersectional issues. I was curious to know how Marcela stays motivated to do this work.
MARCELA GODOY [14:54]: I think it's create, to raise awareness. Right now there is a truck driving clothes garbage to this or maybe tonight. So I think it's the kind of mission that I feel that I have to tell, to tell everything.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [15:17]: And that brings us to the end of our time with Marcela. We hope you enjoyed listening about the understory behind fast fashion and how it's impacting communities in Chile. For more information about the Atacama Fast Fashion graveyard, check out our show notes. “Ropa Americana” was produced by Francisco Núñez Capriles. Stay tuned for our final episode of Season Two, and don't forget to subscribe and follow on all major podcast apps. You can also follow us on Instagram and Twitter to continue the conversation. Catch you next time.
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Season and episode cover artwork by Greg Dubois @marvelgd