Renal fibrosis, particularly tubulointerstitial fibrosis, is the common final outcome of almost all progressive chronic kidney diseases. Renal fibrosis is also a reliable predictor of prognosis and a major determinant of renal insufficiency. Irrespective of the initial causes, renal fibrogenesis is a dynamic and converging process that consists of four overlapping phases: priming, activation, execution and progression. Nonresolving inflammation after a sustained injury sets up the fibrogenic stage (priming) and triggers the activation and expansion of matrix-producing cells from multiple sources through diverse mechanisms, including activation of interstitial fibroblasts and pericytes, phenotypic conversion of tubular epithelial and endothelial cells and recruitment of circulating fibrocytes. Upon activation, matrix-producing cells assemble a multicomponent, integrin-associated protein complex that integrates input from various fibrogenic signals and orchestrates the production of matrix components and their extracellular assembly. Multiple cellular and molecular events, such as tubular atrophy, microvascular rarefaction and tissue hypoxia, promote scar formation and ensure a vicious progression to end-stage kidney failure. This Review outlines our current understanding of the cellular and molecular mechanisms of renal fibrosis, which could offer novel insights into the development of new therapeutic strategies.