Globally, colorectal cancer (CRC) is the third most commonly diagnosed malignancy and the second leading cause of cancer death. Arising through three major pathways, including adenoma-carcinoma sequence, serrated pathway and inflammatory pathway, CRC represents an aetiologically heterogeneous disease according to subtyping by tumour anatomical location or global molecular alterations. Genetic factors such as germline MLH1 and APC mutations have an aetiologic role, predisposing individuals to CRC. Yet, the majority of CRC is sporadic and largely attributable to the constellation of modifiable environmental risk factors characterizing westernization (for example, obesity, physical inactivity, poor diets, alcohol drinking and smoking). As such, the burden of CRC is shifting towards low-income and middle-income countries as they become westernized. Furthermore, the rising incidence of CRC at younger ages (before age 50 years) is an emerging trend. This Review provides a comprehensive summary of CRC epidemiology, with emphasis on modifiable lifestyle and nutritional factors, chemoprevention and screening. Overall, the optimal reduction of CRC incidence and mortality will require concerted efforts to reduce modifiable risk factors, to leverage chemoprevention research and to promote population-wide and targeted screening.