When Jason Utgaard ’07 talks about landfills overflowing with the tons of waste Americans produce, he sees beyond the heaps of trash; instead, he sees endless potential.
In a TEDx talk a few years ago, Utgaard asked people to stop thinking of themselves as consumers and start considering themselves temporary users.
On stage, the ecopreneur pointed to his clothing and explained the uniqueness of each garment – his shirt and pants made from recycled polyester, a belt designed from recycled inner tubes, sunglasses crafted from discarded CDs and shoes created from recycled rubber. Even his socks, he pointed out, were once plastic bottles. Recycling unlikely things such as fishing nets, cigarette butts and used denim is as much about innovation as it is about preservation, he explained.
The point? We have to think about designing for the future using recycled materials.
Offsetting our environmental impact
Utgaard has taken his passion for the environment in many directions. He is the founder of The Spotted Door, an e-commerce website featuring goods made from recycled materials. At Momentum Recycling in Salt Lake City, he spearheads marketing projects and community outreach. And, as an active member of the Al Gorefounded nonprofit, The Climate Reality Project, he helps educate people on how to reduce their environmental footprint.
“There’s really nothing that we can do these days that doesn’t leave some type of impact on the environment,” said Utgaard from his home in Salt Lake City. “What we can do is work to offset that or to minimize that.”
Utgaard, who double majored in entrepreneurship, and leadership and management at St. Thomas, grew up in Maplewood and relocated to Salt Lake City after graduation to work for his family’s nationwide chain of sporting goods stores, Sportsman’s Warehouse. There he learned firsthand everything from supply chain management and product lifecycles to market strategy and merchandising. Unfortunately, not long after his move, the company shuttered many of its stores and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
With his entrepreneurial dreams still in tow, Utgaard moved onto fresh endeavors including stints at Overstock.com and CommerceInterface. He decided to pursue a career embracing sustainability after a combination of events.
“It was a snowball effect leading to the intersection of my enhanced awareness of the sheer volume of material I was responsible for nationally distributing through my roles as a buyer/VP, and this surge of sustainably made products I saw while doing sourcing work,” he said.
When it came time to launch his own venture, The Spotted Door, he wanted to make sure the products he featured were unique, environmentally friendly and had a story behind them.
“I had this huge, long spreadsheet – it was literally 700 lines long – with all these different companies I kept in mind for when I started the website,” Utgaard said. “Finally, I just said I’m going to try my own thing. I took my little severance when I left CommerceInterface (which was bought by Groupon) and put it into starting a website, and that was that.”
Some of the first recycled items that caught his eye were messenger bags and wallets that his colleague’s wife had bought in Colombia.
“I was wowed by the ingenuity it took to create them, and the unique markings on each made them all so cool,” he said. “It wasn’t like seeing 10 of the same item; they were similar but each unique. I loved it. Later on, I actually ended up working directly with that same artist in Colombia to update the designs and I placed a large order for The Spotted Door.”
Currently, Utgaard works with more than 70 suppliers, mostly from across the United States, with the hope of eventually adding global products to his inventory. The site includes an eclectic array of hundreds of items, including armchairs constructed from recycled and repurposed steel drums; tables made from reclaimed wood and scrap metal; jewelry created from old whiskey bottles; dog pull toys made in Minnesota from rubber tubes previously used on cow milking machines, and much more.
“I knew all these products were out there, but they were just so hard for me to even find,” he said. “As a buyer looking for them, I couldn’t imagine any consumer just stumbling upon them. At The Spotted Door, we are selling products that many times people have never heard of. If you’ve never heard of sunglasses made from recycled CDs, you’re not going to go home and say, ‘I think I’ll Google “sunglasses made from CDs” and see if anything comes up.’ That’s not going to happen.”
One of The Spotted Door’s most popular pieces is a floor mat made from recycled fire hoses. Sourced from fire departments in the Midwest, the mats include a tag indicating the fire department that used the hoses and when the hoses were decommissioned. Ten percent of sales from the mats go back to the fire department that donated the hose.
Products featured on The Spotted Door have to be made from at least 50 percent recycled content, said Utgaard, who is drawn toward compiling an inventory of innovative, under-the-radar items.
“Overall, I’m really looking for stuff that wows me,” he said. “You look at it, and you can’t help but click into reading about its story. Or it might be something that I haven’t seen before. There are certain types of materials that I’m looking for, but usually I’m just looking for somebody who seems to have something that’s innovative but also fits an everyday need. We don’t want to create waste from these things that we’re making from recycled materials. We want them to be functional in nature, too. I want to get into their story. I want people to connect with the products.”
A cause, passion and curiosity
While the entrepreneurial seed was planted early for Utgaard thanks to his family’s business, he started to hone his skills while attending St. Thomas. Utgaard vividly recalled pitching business ideas in class to a panel of local entrepreneurs as a memorable and tough challenge he described as “brutal yet beneficial, and surprisingly entertaining.”
The Schulze School of Entrepreneurship’s Alec Johnson remembered Utgaard as always being curious, having a can-do attitude and wearing a giant smile.
“When I saw he had launched his current business, I was not surprised,” said Johnson, who teaches entrepreneurship. “He’s an intellectually engaged, positive person with a cause, passion and curiosity.”
Years after graduation, when looking into starting his own business, Utgaard recalled revisiting notes from his entrepreneurial classes with Johnson and Jay Ebben.
“I actually have a page of notes that, across the top in big letters, says, ‘creating new market space.’ When I graduated, I went back and put all my important class notes together,” Utgaard said. “I still look back at this when I need to figure out, ‘Why is this not working? Why have things flatlined?’”
It’s not unusual, said Johnson, that budding entrepreneurs reference classroom lessons postgraduation.
“Maybe that simply speaks to the practical nature of our program,” he said. “That we are doing the right thing because they are walking out and saying, ‘I can use this. Not only can I, I need to and I want to.’”
“There is absolutely nothing easy about being asked to start a business,” Johnson continued. “They are easy words to say – ‘start a business.’ It’s not physics; it doesn’t have the same abstract thinking or math skills, right? It’s a different kind of difficult. I think what is wrapped in there is, ‘Do I know the right questions to ask? Do I have the courage to answer the hard questions?’ The questions are not complicated, but answering them can be hard.”
Utgaard is the first to admit running a startup hasn’t been easy. With plenty of ups and downs in the business, he is able to break even at this point.
Improving his community
Along with his duties at The Spotted Door, Utgaard is also marketing director for Momentum Recycling. Thanks to an awareness campaign he spearheaded, the company has added 7,000 residential subscribers across Salt Lake City to its optional glass recycling program. Last year, the company recycled 13,000 tons of glass at its Salt Lake City plant.
“Jason already had been very involved in the sustainability community in our area,” said John Lair, president and CEO of Momentum Recycling. “We are a social impact business – that’s how we think of ourselves. We need to make a profit, but we also have this important part of our mission to improve the community. Jason was doing that already through other projects, so we knew there was a great alignment with his passions and ethics and ours.
“He’s always able to understand the different initiatives and opportunities that come up and look at those through the lens of, ‘How is this going to move the mission forward? How is this going to increase our profitability or increase our exposure?’” Lair added. “Because of his entrepreneurial background, he is able to look at all of these things through that lens, which is really powerful for us.”
Educating people about the environment is Utgaard’s passion. He is as excited to spread the word about Momentum’s work as he is about adding new products to The Spotted Door, such as swimwear made from 84 percent recycled plastic bottles. He calls himself an everyday alumnus “trying to do something different.
“It’s a challenge to be more sustainable and to not do what everybody else is doing just because it’s easy, cheap and accessible,” Utgaard said. “Any company can do something. Every company has to try. Because if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going down the wrong path. That’s why I abandoned ship after my first couple of years in generic retail and said, ‘I’m going to try something that nobody else is doing, and if it fails, it fails. But at least it keeps me going.’ I’m encouraged to keep trying to make a difference, instead of just trying to make money.”
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