Satellite images confirm that a giant pile of fast fashion clothes is now visible from space.
SKyFi, an on-demand Earth observation photo and video app pulled up satellite images from Chile’s Atacama desert — which has been a dumping ground for fast fashion leftovers. The mountain comprises 60,000 tonnes of discarded clothing and looks massive in comparison to the neighbouring city of Iquique and its population of 191,468. United Nations labelled the site “an environmental and social emergency” for the planet in 2018, and it has only gotten worse since then.
— SkyFi (@SkyfiApp) May 10, 2023
The Atacama desert is also one of the driest in the world – so much so that the European Space Agency and NASA have used the location as a stand-in for Mars – and local communities have suffered week-long wildfires. In June 2022, this caused an unprecedented catastrophe as synthetic fibres emitted toxic gases into the atmosphere, contaminating Iquique’s neighbourhoods and forcing citizens to stay indoors.
The fast fashion industry continues to thrive – a rubbish truck’s worth of clothing arrives at the landfill every second. Fast fashion is a large sector of the fashion industry whose business model relies on cheap, rapid, and large-scale production of low-quality clothing. While affordable prices and items that reflect the latest fashion trends are extremely attractive, especially to younger shoppers, we often overlook the environmental and social impacts of the industry.
The fashion industry produces about 100 billion items of clothing each year. Thanks to the rise in short-form and quick content on social media, and the abundance of fashion content influencers – there seems to be a new clothing trend every minute. Fashion items and different aesthetics are lucrative one day and become worthless the next.
People tend to buy things they see on the internet, without much evaluation and research, and most of them end up in landfills. Only 15 per cent of the clothes that come through the Iquique port are second-hand, which means the remaining 85 per cent of garments are unworn.
On top of that, about 60 per cent of all clothes have plastic-based materials, but of low quality, so they’re less durable and end up in the dumps quickly. A lot of brands claim to adopt sustainability, but investigation shows that they are more than likely exaggerated and a marketing strategy known as ‘Greenwashing’. Fashion giants promote misleading information to make consumers believe they are ethical or appear to value transparency by sharing information regarding their emissions only to forget to set clear targets to lower them.
In April 2022, the European Commission announced plans to put an end to fast fashion by 2030 by introducing a mandatory minimum use of recycled fibres and banning companies from sending any unsold clothing and textile products to landfills. The EU also plans to force large fashion companies to disclose how much of unsold stock they send to landfills – dumped clothing in landfills increases the risk of microplastics leaking into the environment – as well as improve global labour conditions in the garment industry.
With the growing popularity of slow fashion and thrifting, individuals are becoming more conscious of their efforts against climate change. But even if we boycott fast fashion brands, many don’t seem to recognise another side of this problem – overconsumption. Regardless of if we buy from ‘environmentally sustainable’ brands, buying more than we need is the root cause of this issue.
According to the UN’s assessments in 2022, many of the impacts of global warming are now simply “irreversible”, and other scientists have warned of the same over time. Individual efforts in this matter, but now we’re beyond the point where our personal actions alone can avoid the bigger issue at hand. We cannot fix the fast fashion industry with material substitutions and eco-labels. Instead, we have to radically reconstruct the textile industry to minimise natural resource intake and waste production.