Endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress and the unfolded protein response (UPR) have been associated with fibrotic lung disease, although exactly how they modulate this process remains unclear. Here we investigated the role of GRP78, the main UPR regulator, in an experimental model of lung injury and fibrosis. Grp78+/−, Chop−/− and wild type C57BL6/J mice were exposed to bleomycin by oropharyngeal intubation and lungs were examined at days 7 and 21. We demonstrate here that Grp78+/− mice were strongly protected from bleomycin-induced fibrosis, as shown by immunohistochemical analysis, collagen content and lung function measurements. In the inflammatory phase of this model, a reduced number of lung macrophages associated with an increased number of TUNEL-positive cells were observed in Grp78+/− mice. Dual immunohistochemical and in situ hybridization experiments showed that the macrophage population from the protected Grp78+/− mice was also strongly positive for cleaved caspase-3 and Chop mRNA, respectively. In contrast, the administration of bleomycin to Chop−/− mice resulted in increased quasi-static elastance and extracellular matrix deposition associated with an increased number of parenchymal arginase-1-positive macrophages that were negative for cleaved caspase-3. The data presented indicate that the UPR is activated in fibrotic lung tissue and strongly localized to macrophages. GRP78- and CHOP-mediated macrophage apoptosis was found to protect against bleomycin-induced fibrosis. Overall, we demonstrate here that the fibrotic response to bleomycin is dependent on GRP78-mediated events and provides evidence that macrophage polarization and apoptosis may play a role in this process. Copyright © 2016 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.