Fast fashion goes to die in the world’s largest fog desert. The scale is breathtaking.

By National Geography

The Atacama Desert in northern Chile stretches from the Pacific to the Andes across a barren expanse of red-orange rock canyons and peaks. As one of the driest deserts on Earth, it’s a bucket-list destination for stargazing tourists who come for some of the clearest views of the night sky. With its arid, rocky landscape so closely resembling Mars, the desert has even attracted the attention of NASA, which has tested rovers there.

But the Atacama has also attained a less wondrous distinction as one of the world’s fast-growing dumps of discarded clothes, thanks to the rapid mass production of inexpensive attire known as fast fashion. The phenomenon has created so much waste that the UN calls it “an environmental and social emergency.” The challenge is turning off that tap.

The numbers tell the tale. Between 2000 and 2014, clothing production doubled and consumers began buying 60 percent more clothes and wearing them for half as long as they once did. Three-fifths of all clothing is estimated to end up in landfills or incinerators within a year of production—that can translate to a truckload of used clothing dumped or burned every second. Most of the facilities are in South Asia or Africa, where the nations receiving those loads cannot handle the amount. A landfill near Accra, Ghana’s capital, that is said to be 60 percent clothes and 65 feet high has gained international notoriety as a symbol of the crisis.

The scene in northern Chile has been dubbed in one online video “the great fashion garbage patch,” a terrestrial variation of the better-known Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Colossal piles of discarded clothes, with labels from all over the world, stretch as far as the eye can see on the outskirts of Alto Hospicio, a hardscrabble city of 120,000 residents. In one ravine, a pile of jeans and suit jackets, bleached by the harsh sun, rises above a mound of fake-fur coats and dress shirts, some still bearing price tags.

Bottles, bags, and other trash are mixed in.

As images of the clothing heaps spread on the internet, many Chileans expressed surprise. “I was shocked to think that we were becoming the textile dump for developed countries,” says Franklin Zepeda, a director of a company that focuses on circular economic practices. But the story of how the South American nation came to be a repository for the world’s apparel rejects has as much to do with globalization and trade as it does with fleeting style trends.

At first glance, it might seem that an isolated desert nearly a thousand miles from Chile’s population centers would be an unlikely destination for fast fashion’s discards, but the country is also home to one of South America’s largest duty-free ports—located in the coastal city of Iquique on the Atacama’s western edge. Millions of tons of clothes arrive annually from Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Last year’s tally was 46 million tons, according to Chilean customs statistics.

Duty-free ports encourage economic activity, as goods are imported and often reexported without the usual taxes and fees. The duty-free port was established in Iquique in 1975 to help generate jobs and improve an ailing local economy. Chile became one of the world’s largest importers of used clothes, which transformed Iquique. As fast fashion exploded, so did imports.

“The zona franca [free zone] was a true revolution” for the city’s residents, says Bernardo Guerrero, a sociologist at Fundación Crear, an organization that studies Iquique’s history and culture. “They suddenly had access to things they could never have imagined, like their own car.” Apparel began washing in and out of Iquique like waves as global fashions changed. Guerrero recalls a time in the 1990s when almost everybody in the city wore the same style of puffer jacket after large shipments of them arrived. It was a sign of what was to come.

About 2,000 businesses of all types now operate in the duty-free zone; more than half are foreign. Hand-painted brand logos adorn warehouse doorways, and stacks of used cars—another major import—tower over the narrow streets. The free zone has also developed into a sorting depot for textile waste.

“In essence, we are just recycling the world’s clothes,” says Mehmet Yildiz, who arrived in Chile from his native Turkey two decades ago and operates a clothing import business named Dilara. Yildiz brings in clothes from the United States and Europe, most of them from thrift stores such as Goodwill. Once the garments reach Iquique, workers separate them into four categories, ranging from premium to poor quality. Yildiz then exports the best to the Dominican Republic, Panama, Asia, Africa—and even back to the U.S. for resale.

Clothing that the importers don’t want ends up in the hands of truck drivers who ferry it a few miles to the dump outside Alto Hospicio, where it goes through another cycle of sorting and resale in small shops and street markets or at La Quebradilla, a huge open-air market. There, a roaring used-clothes trade continues on a half-mile-long strip of some 7,000 stalls. A recent visit turned up faded T-shirts commemorating the 2001 U.S. Open golf tournament, a jacket emblazoned with the logo of a Texas police force, and a wool hat with the badge of a California university, among a sea of other castoffs.

Clothing that doesn’t sell at the market is destined for the desert, and much of it is made from synthetic materials that won’t biodegrade. Scavengers salvage what goods they can. On a cool afternoon, a woman named Génesis rummaged through a pile of formal clothes, nurses’ uniforms, underwear, and Crocs, taking fleeces and blankets for the cold nights and earmarking the better garments to sell at La Quebradilla, where they may fetch a handful of coins.

“Everything is useful to me,” she said brightly, laughing as she imagined herself in a brand-new summer dress printed with strawberries. “We’re lucky to have found this.”

As helpful as resale markets might’ve been in an earlier era, they’ve been overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the mounting discards. New efforts, large and small, are under way to deal with clothing waste, and attention to the mess in the desert may inspire additional projects.