This process produced insights into viable and impractical design modifications.

Handcrafted Footwear 
Sustainable Portuguese cork upper, metallic leather accent, suede tongue, leather sole.

Design for sustainable shoe

Knit upper, organic hemp with modular construction

Tubes for nylon wire

Extruded, rice rubber sole


Removable insole made of natural latex with organic hemp cover



Problem Statement
Footwear is largely designed by the following process: a sketch goes to the factory, where the sketch is modified to be wearable and to fit manufacturing constraints. The materials and construction (including toxic glues) are not environmentally friendly, nor are advances in biomechanics and technology incorporated.

Created an Ethics Statement: Do No Harm, get as close as possible to zero environmental impact.

Identify each stakeholder and map needs / desired outcomes for each
Society – Protect the environment at all stages of lifecycle
Producer – Ensure fair wages, good working conditions and minimize exposure to toxins
Business – Make a profit, build a strong brand
Consumer – Comfortable, beautiful footwear, no adverse health effects, ethical purchase
Industry – Growth, copy design

Identify each stage of product life cycle (opportunities for redesign)
End of life

Identify constraints
Very difficult to achieve zero environmental impact
Each individual foot is different and changes shape throughout the day and throughout life
Few sustainable materials and glues that are durable, with the proper stiffness and flexibility
Lack of access to manufacturing/prototyping facilities
Legacy industry with little interest in innovation, focused primarily on driving down costs

Identify resources
Existing Research – Medical research measuring impact of high heels and other footwear designs that move pressure to different areas during foot strike
Education – Fashion Institute of Technology footwear courses
Practitioners – Podiatrists focusing on biomechanics, footwear manufacturers, designers
Technical – Labs available at FIT

Research Goals
Combination of the following:

Creation of, composition, growth, shaping, modification, self-repair, costs, risks, environmental and time costs in production, use profiles, performance in variable conditions with variable loads, combinations, disposal/material reuse, bioproducts, biomaterials

Customization, object scanning, additive manufacturing, algorithms, features, variation, colors, design – aesthetics, ergonomics, adaptive load-bearing structures, prototyping

Performance in variable conditions:  temperature, moisture, loads, motion, flexibility

Biomimetics, bioengineering, biomechanics, biofabrication

What I did
I found that these had to studied separately and then combined.
While doing research on sustainable design and materials, I created prototypes to test the positive and negative effects of making variations to the last.

I ultimately realized that the best way forward to achieve this goal is to look at nature-inspired design, including synthetic biology, which is relatively futuristic at this stage. Various fields have to be further developed to achieve this goal.

Current Status
I closed this initiative down, due to the incipient nature of the technology I wanted to use.

Synopsis:  In 2009, I started pursuing an initiative to create footwear that is biomechanically correct and ecologically sustainable. I read medical research papers on the health impacts of different footwear designs; learned different aspects of design and construction at FIT in New York, including design, anatomy, biomechanics, and materials, and constructing footwear by hand. I took courses in 3D modeling for Rhino and Grasshopper and engaged in self-study in biomimicry. In 2015, while on a research fellowship in sustainable engineering at Loughborough University (UK), I researched publicly available frameworks for sustainable design and worked on creating a guide for companies to produce footwear sustainably. I also learned about conservation of heat, water and materials and researched design for behavior change.

Soon after, I had an epiphany that incremental improvements to the traditional manufacturing system would not make enough of an impact on sustainability. This model involves extraction, transport, assembly, further transport, packaging, and displays. In addition, even if a product is designed with end of life in mind, for example, to biodegrade, the appropriate conditions may not be met for decomposition; recycling creates additional environmental costs; and the materials can degrade. Following my realization that sustainable industrial manufacturing was not the optimal solution, I started to envision using natural materials that could grow to the foot or be 3D printed into the right form. At this point, I researched biomaterials and synthetic biology. 


© Copyright 2023 Shireen Khan


Leather upper, leather sole

global systems thinker WITH multidisciplinary expertise

Specialist in SUSTAINABILITY, PARTNERSHIPS, innovation, entrepreneurship

Explorer, CONNECTOR, Using insights & technology to drive progress



Shireen Khan