- Structural integrity of composite materials is governed by failure mechanisms that initiate at the scale of the microstructure. The local stress fields evolve with the progression of the failure mechanisms. Within the full span from initiation to criticality of the failure mechanisms, the governing length scales in a fibre-reinforced composite change from the fibre size to the characteristic fibre-architecture sizes, and eventually to a structural size, depending on the composite configuration and structural geometry as well as the imposed loading environment. Thus, a physical modelling of failure in composites must necessarily be of multi-scale nature, although not always with the same hierarchy for each failure mode. With this background, the paper examines the currently available main composite failure theories to assess their ability to capture the essential features of failure. A case is made for an alternative in the form of physical modelling and its skeleton is constructed based on physical observations and systematic analysis of the basic failure modes and associated stress fields and energy balances. This article is part of the themed issue 'Multiscale modelling of the structural integrity of composite materials'.