The Gram-negative envelope is a complex structure that consists of the inner membrane, the periplasm, peptidoglycan and the outer membrane, and protects the bacterial cell from the environment. Changing environmental conditions can cause damage, which triggers the envelope stress responses to maintain cellular homeostasis. In this Review, we explore the causes, both environmental and intrinsic, of envelope stress, as well as the cellular stress response pathways that counter these stresses. Furthermore, we discuss the damage to the cell that occurs when these pathways are aberrantly activated either in the absence of stress or to an excessive degree. Finally, we review the mechanisms whereby the σ response constantly acts to prevent cell death caused by highly toxic unfolded outer membrane proteins. Together, the recent work that we discuss has provided insights that emphasize the necessity for proper levels of stress response activation and the detrimental consequences that can occur in the absence of proper regulation.